17 November 2016

Tzippy the Thief by Patricia Striar Rohner

Tzippy is the story of a vain, self-indulgent, superficial, pampered and narcissistic 80-year-old woman, at the head of a dysfunctional family. She lives in Florida with her live-in, African-American maid. In her latter years, she is in a relationship with Stan, a long-time friend of the family, and especially of her late husband.

This is a well-written and well-edited story. The prose is crisp and concise. Scenes are created vividly, but with a minimum of excess. At times the writing has an almost journalistic feel. Even during Tzippy’s periods of introspection the author refrains from hyperbole and excess. Nevertheless, Tzippy’s feelings, thoughts and worldview are perfectly apparent to the reader. Only in Chapter 18 did I feel that the writing faltered a little, becoming somewhat stilted and hurried.

In the course of the narrative, various of her children—Shari, Bruce and Naomi—and their spouses and partners come on stage, but the main thread concerns Tzippy’s relationship with her younger daughter, Shari, forty-something and an alcoholic. In her younger days—and perhaps still—Shari suffered from anorexia-bulimia. It becomes Tzippy’s late-life crusade to do what she can to heal this relationship and repair some of the harm she has done to the daughter.

Tzippy also has to face two other issues in her life. She is addicted to benzodiazepines, although she does not at first acknowledge this. The author walks a fine line here, and some readers might think that she overplays the irony as Tzippy reflects upon her daughter’s excessive alcohol consumption, while at the same time popping another pill.

The other issue Tzippy has to deal with is her proneness to theft. She is caught on this occasion and has to deal with the humiliation. At the same time her maid of many years—Angie—is caught stealing money from Tzippy. Again, the irony may be a little overplayed; but, again, it is a fine Iine.

The narrative is related exclusively from the intimate, third-person point of view of Tzippy. She is very much centre stage. This lends her an almost celebrity status: she is very much the star of her life, and of the scenes that play out. This is true even when she seems to be focused on the well-being of others. No matter how much she tries to reach out to others, somehow the story is always still about her. There is a tension here, because it is clear that at times Tzippy really does want to be less selfish and less self-centred; yet, somehow, she is never far from the centre of the narrative, or from her own concerns.

The other characters are mostly well drawn. Shari, the younger daughter, is interesting and complex. Even at her most down and out there is an attractive vulnerability to her. The reader also suspects that she knows very well how to use this to her advantage. She has learned manipulation from a master manipulator. The characterisation of the maid, Angie—an overweight African-American woman with a love for caftans—flirts with caricature, but perhaps just avoids it. Tzippy’s love interest, Stan, seems rather shallow and ineffectual, although I think the author’s intention is to present him as practical, down to earth and balanced. Perhaps he is, but against the bright colours of the other characters, he seems somewhat pale and insipid.

But Tzippy is the centre here. I confess that I found it difficult to like her, as is perhaps evidenced by the opening sentence of this review. I found it difficult to take seriously the problems of this pampered and privileged woman. Nor am I sure whether the author wants us to like her. I did have some sympathy for her. She clearly recognises her own superficiality and selfishness. But I couldn’t help feeling that even this was part of her ‘game’, this need to ‘make things right’ and live a deeper, more satisfying life. I can only echo the words of the judge before whom Tzippy appears following her theft: ‘Mrs. Bryer, go home and stop this nonsense.’