Sons of the 613, Michael Rubens

Recently, I told a friend that I could count on one hand the number of times my brother and I have hugged. He didn’t believe me. “Surely,” he said, “when you were kids, he hugged you all the time.” I just stared at him. “I hug my little sister all the time…” As though a statement about my relationship was a judgement of all brothers everywhere. I just nodded politely. Of course he did. I’m sure many brothers do; mine, however, prefers not. He isn’t the affectionate type, but in our peculiar, reserved relationship, I could point to any number of occasions when I knew without a doubt that he loved me. I have all those moments – tiny, sheltered, strange-shaped sparks of his love – with me always.

This might seem strange to you if your family more closely resembles that of any of my best friends, all of whom are affectionate with their siblings, and largely share the same interests. My brother, however, is five years older than me; in child development terms, this puts us on the border of being, essentially, only children…only children who just happen to be siblings. We share few common interests, although we do have a similar sense of humor and (to our grave misfortune) a combination of genes that  cause us to sweat profusely while standing still in a cool room. In my life, I have only ever read two books that came close to capturing the kind of relationship that he and I have, and both were this year: the first was The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender, and second is Sons of the 613.

Before I continue, I must admit something: flattery will get you nowhere (yeah, right – I’m not a robot), but a reblog might earn your new book a bump to the top of my “to-read” list, especially if you’ve already published one I fanatically share with sci-fi loving friends. Michael Rubens, author of The Sheriff of Yrnmeer, came across my review of that book last week and was kind enough to link to Books J’adore from his site. He also emailed to thank me and mentioned he had a new book that had come out at the beginning of September. He warned me that, unlike Yrnameer, it was a young adult book, and since I couldn’t blame him for not being privy to the sight of my huge collection of YA lit, I did an internet equivalent of the nod and smile while frantically hitting the Buy button on his site.

I read it in about six hours. When I finished, it was way past my bedtime and I was feeling emotional. I lay on my bed for a while trying to figure out why it wasn’t possible for some books to be surgically implanted inside the body. A few things to know about Sons of the 613: it’s a coming of age story about the two weeks preceding a boy’s bar mitzvah. Rubens neatly extracts his protagonists’ parents within a chapter;  Isaac and his younger sister are left in the charge of their volatile, enigmatic older brother Josh. It is, ostensibly, a comedy. I agree with this insofar as I agree that as an adult, it’s amusing to look back on the humiliating and trying experiences of adolescence. Also, as a writer, Rubens was clearly sympathetic to his characters, which did allow me to laugh without the burden of guilt.

It is not, however, a comedy. Or, more accurately, I should I say that from the second chapter, entitled “A Short Discussion of My Brother, His Volatile Nature, and His Doubtful Parentage,” it did not read like a comedy to me. It was more like an unrequited love story. There is a little of what I’d hesitantly call romance in the book (if you’ve ever met a boy between the ages of 13 and 20, you might understand why I say “hesitantly”), but that’s not what I’m referring to here. I’m talking about the much more painful bands of love that form between siblings with particular personality traits.

I have always felt that on the one hand, no one who will ever understand a person quite the way a sister or brother does. It’s related to the connection of DNA, the perspective of childhood, the shared angst of parentage…and since our parents were both only children, this created, for me at least, a heightened awareness of its importance from an early age. My brother was always particularly precious because he was the only person in the world connected to me in this way, and because I was always half-certain that the universe was plotting to steal him away, and even worse, that he might rather go than stay.

This brings me to the other hand – the one where it’s possible to keep secrets more thoroughly from a sibling than from anyone else. He and I are particular experts at leaving the full truth to squat at the edge of any given conversation. My brother and I have always lived tentatively on this amorphous plane – a mystery to each other, but also a life-preserver. I have never seen that relationship, with its vulnerability kept in tact, written so well as it is by Rubens. He doesn’t exploit it, but instead explores, pressing each tender spot just hard enough to provoke a response without leaving a mark.

I was fully prepared, when I picked up this book, not to love it as much as Yrnameer. It can be difficult for an author to successfully switch genres or to write a new book that satisfies as much as the first, but after reading Sons, I recognized a trait, not just in Rubens, but in all of my favorite authors: the writers who move me the most are the ones telling stories that capture the human experience regardless of the genre, length, or targeted age group of their book. This is a talent that transcends those descriptors and ignores the limits of what a particular book should or should not say. It’s a rare gift, and  I look forward to seeing what Rubens chooses to do with it next.

For more about Michael Rubens, head over here.

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