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3.5 out of 5 stars
3.5 out of 5 stars
When We Were Bad: A Novel
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on 19 June 2017
Read this for a book club. Didn't care about the characters who seemed to bring everything on themselves, especially the control freak mother. The two older children manage to break free from their stifling family life, a little. Wouldn't recommend it to anyone.
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on 9 July 2017
Good read.
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on 5 April 2017
wonderfully written
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VINE VOICEon 11 August 2008
I really love it when I hit upon a book that is light and perfect for a holiday read, without being vacuous or cliched. This is one such book.

The story is set in London and centres around a female Rabbi - Claudia Rubin - who is very well respected and loved in the community. She is there for her congregation when they need her, thoughtful to a fault and always dresses and behaves impeccably. Her family life seems perfect to the outside world and the Rubins are envied far and wide.

But, you never know what's going on behind closed doors and when her son decides to leave his fiance - at the altar - to elope with the wife of a fellow Rabbi, it becomes clear that all is not well with Claudia Rubin's family.

From this point the illusion of happiness that has cloaked her family begins to untangle. The story is amusing and light - it feels like a good quality soap opera with substance! You can't wish for more than that for a holiday read surely?!

Incidentally, as someone who knows little about the Jewish faith, I greatly enjoyed reading about Jewish celebrations and the amazing preparations that go into them ... this was all weaved seamlessly into the story.

Give yourself a treat and read this book!
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on 4 October 2010
The final paragraph of When We Were Bad by Charlotte Mendelson finds Claudia Rubin, main protagonist and rabbi, writer, mother extraordinaire sitting down to write her family the 'love letters they deserve'.

This ending could just as easily be a beginning and we wonder whether the Rubins will achieve just that. Will they manage a new dawn with honesty at its core, for honesty is something the Rubins find themselves alarmingly short of. They are, without exception, a conflicted family.

There's Leo the porn buying eldest son who runs off with a rabbi's wife and Frances the dependable one who secretly grapples in search of the love that should come naturally but hasn't, not for son, nor husband and step-daughters. There are the younger siblings who exist in a supported state of perpetual youth and of course their father, Norman, the retiring husband who has done anything but retire, squirrelling himself away instead to write the acclaimed book his wife has been dreaming of for herself.

That Claudia has never before 'dared' to write these letters says something of the paradoxes that define this Jewish clan. They inhabit a world of contradiction where family is everything yet nothing, where siblings and parents frantically call each other for hourly updates yet remain entirely oblivious to what is really going on right under their noses, where the reliable become the unreliable and where the preoccupation with real food and its plentiful abundance underlines the near absence of soul food, of genuine understanding and spiritual nourishment. That the family exists under the watchful gaze of Claudia Rubin, famous for her spiritual nourishment of strangers, is all the more ironic.

The plot is ferociously fast and this would feel like chick lit were it not for Mendelson's command of language and character. It is a novel that works on many levels, as a lighthearted pacy adventure just as well as a more psychologically nuanced reflection on escaping your mother.

It is funny, quick witted, poignant and sad but most of all, it rings true, an excellent read.
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on 5 July 2008
I only really review books I enjoy and this one was great. The family complexity and the challenges of a mother forced to relinquish control, as well as the beautiful cultural experience - it is a very well written novel. The author strikes a great balance between creating a profound sense of loss, worry and complex family worries but it is tightly held together with love, and laughter and is very funny in parts. I would recommend you to read this book.
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on 2 September 2008
Mendelson takes us to a very special wedding on the first page of this witty and socially incendiary novel. The Rubin family have turned out to see one of their members, their first son Leo, married before his Rabbi mother Claudia, easily the most exotic, creature in the world: `No one is interested in you. There is one star of this show: tall and distractingly voluptuous in sea-green silk devore. With her in their mist...who could not be happy?' Yet Leo strangely has other plans. He elopes before the congregation with the seductive wife of the presiding Rabbi and precipates the whole Rubin family into chaotic disarray. Claudia's control begins to slip. Her dutiful daughter Frances, once gratefully married to the monstrously complacent Jonathan, falls for the `boyfriend' of her younger sister and finds that attraction has its own surprises and rewards. Rebellion mounts and even Claudia's steady husband Norman has his own preoccupations and secrets. Mendelson's writing delights in its frothy intelligence, sudden illumination and underlining compassion for the disordering impulses that may unravel our tried and tested lives, yet also redeem us, as we discover who we really, honestly are.
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on 2 May 2008
I'm a big fan of Mendelson's work in general, and this novel did not disappoint. Although as a youngest sibling I might quibble with her tendency to sympathize with eldest siblings, her depiction of familial relationships and conflicts is unparalleled.

As someone with a female rabbi in her family, I appreciated her humanization of Claudia Rubin, the matriarch and rabbi around whom the other characters (and the action of the novel) revolves. I was particularly fascinated by the idea of someone who can connect with and lead strangers, but fails to connect with and lead her own family. While other reviewers here might feel that rabbis must demonstrate spiritual leadership, in the familial realm that's often not the case. Rabbis can be people with problems too.

Most importantly, Mendelson's writing is positively propulsive. It's rare to find a literary writer, with such creative and original language and imagery, who can also drive a page-turning plot. I had to force myself to slow down to appreciate the writing, because I kept speeding up to find out what was going to happen!
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on 9 June 2009
For once a book that almost lives up to the hype. 'A dazzling portrait of a family in crisis' says the Guardian, and that's what it is. A very Jewish family in a very amusing and rather unlikely crisis perhaps, but so well-written, the characters so convincingly drawn, that this family crisis soon becomes of interest to anyone who turns the first page. Ms Mendelson manages to inject enough suspense into the business of failed weddings, fraught family gatherings and dysfunctional relationships, with a hint of lesbianism thrown in for good measure, that I almost couldn't put the book down.
Your own family is unlikely to be quite like the Rubins, but this is full of enjoyable drama and intelligent observations about the difficulties of family life. There's also a glossary of Jewish terms at the back which, unless you attend your shul every Friday, you'll probably need.
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on 14 August 2008
I'd tried another novel by Charlotte Mendelson and found it a bit overwritten and the first chapter of this made me think it was going to be more of the same. But I persevered and really enjoyed this book. It had great wit and humanity, the dilemmas of the main characters were beautifully realised and I laughed out loud often. I did think the resolution was a bit hasty and unrealistic, hence five stars rather than four but I'd still strongly recommend this.
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