Revenge: Like the Best Sort of Intoxicating Suspense Story
New books dissected over email.
April 23 2002 11:38 AM

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Dear Jodi:
I have to admit to greeting Revenge with a certain wariness, because its premise seemed at first glance to be strangely thin, at least when taken in the large, sorry context of the Middle East. Compared to the horrors people inflict on each other every day there, the botched shooting of an American tourist by a PLO terrorist in Jerusalem in 1986—the incident at the heart of the book, by the Washington Post reporter Laura Blumenfeld—did not strike me as counting for particularly much, particularly since the victim got off so easily, with a grazed head that enabled him to walk healthily away from the hospital. The victim was Blumenfeld's father, a lovable rabbi from New York, and the book is an account of her effort to find out why his would-be killer fired that bullet, and at the same time to explore, both in her own heart and in the world at large, what revenge means and whether it is a goal worth having. It's a terrific subject, but her way into it seemed somewhat forced, contrived.

I found myself drawn in by Blumenfeld's prose—spare, elegant, funny, and engaging—and by her facility for drawing you in to her head, making you feel part of her project. Then, I began admiring her skill as a reporter: her doggedness, her energy, her patience, how she brings out her subjects, the initiative she takes in moving her questions far afield, to places like Palermo, home of the Mafia and Omerta, and Albania, where blood feuds go on for generations. And finally I found myself fascinated and moved by the trajectory of her story, the way she befriended the family of the man who shot her father without revealing her identity; how she then began corresponding, also incognito, with the shooter himself; and how she revealed the truth to them all in a climactic scene straight out of a film. Toward the end, Revenge reads like the best sort of intoxicating suspense story, leaving you dying to find out what happens next.

Blumenfeld also fluently answered my concerns about why she decided to pursue what began as a quixotic vendetta, against the judgment of her entire family, including her father. He didn't harbor any feelings about the shooter, he said, so why did she? Why did she need to know so much? She answers these questions herself, in a number of ways on a number of occasions, but to me the one that reads most honestly was this one, which she gives after a conversation with an Israeli woman whose husband was killed by a suicide bomber but who is indifferent to avenging him:

A question that came back to me many times that year: If my father had been killed, would I be contemplating revenge? The answer was probably no. I was not capable of avenging a murder. The crime was overwhelming. The criminal terrifying.

It was the inconsequence of my father's injury that allowed me to entertain thoughts of revenge. It was a blow that I thought I could return. If my father had been murdered, I would have been too broken to do anything except, perhaps, believe that God would take care of his killer. And so the second type of person who believed in divine vengeance, the devastated soul, did not resonate with me. I was lucky my father had lived.

I'd like to talk at some point about the story beneath the story— the tale of the divorce of Blumenfeld's parents, who both turn up as delightful characters in the book—and how that affected what Blumenfeld did, as well. But I wonder, first, if you shared my admiration for this book. And, second, if it made you think about revenge in your own life. How do you go about dealing with people you feel have wronged you, or wronged the people you love?

All best to you,
Sarah

Sarah Lyall is a London correspondent for the New York Times. You can follow her on Twitter.