Julian Treslove is a 49 year old Gentile living in present day London whose life has been a series of disappointments: he has movie star good looks but can't seem to sustain a relationship with a woman for more than a few months; he was let go from his production job at the BBC for his overly morbid programs on Radio 3, a station known for its solemnity; and he has fathered two boys, who ridicule and despise him. Even worse, he compares poorly to his friend, rival, and former school classmate Sam Finkler, a pop philosopher, radio and television personality, and author of best selling books such as The Existentialist in the Kitchen and John Duns Scotus and Self Esteem: A Manual for the Menstruating, which have made him wealthy and respected, with a beautiful wife and three successful children.
However, the one thing that Julian desires most of all is to become Jewish, like Sam and their mutual friend and former teacher Libor Sevcik, a Czech whose tell all biographies of Hollywood starlets such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich have earned him fortune and notoriety. Julian refers to Jews as Finklers, after his friend, and frequently wonders how they think, why they are smarter and more successful than him, and how he can understand and be more like them. The three men engage in frequent discussion about Israel, Palestine, and Jewish life in London; understandably, Julian is always an outsider, despite his desire to become one with his friends.
Libor and Sam are contrasts in character. Libor is pro-Israel yet reasonable in his beliefs, whereas Sam is fervently anti-Zionist, and openly supports the Palestinian cause.
At the beginning of the novel, the three men meet for dinner at Sevcik's lavish apartment in Regent's Park. Their discussion is more somber than usual, as Libor and Sam have recently become widowed, and Julian acts as a honorary third widower. Julian refuses Sam's offer of a ride in his limousine, and decides to walk home. While gazing at violins in a store window he is suddenly attacked and robbed, and he convinces himself that his assailant has mistaken him for a Jew. Other than a broken nose and a loss of pride he isn't badly injured, but the crime and its aftermath lead him to examine who he is (is he Jewish after all?), and his relationships with his friends, women he has dated, and his two sons.
As the crisis in the Middle East worsens, acts of violence against Jews and their establishments in London become more common. Sam is invited to join a group, which he co-opts and renames ASHamed Jews, which engages in verbal warfare against supporters of the state of Israel. Through his close friendships with Libor, Sam and other Jews of various backgrounds and beliefs that he meets, Julian becomes more exposed to their lives, in his fervent attempt to answer "The Finkler Question": what does it mean to be Jewish in the 21st century?
"The Finkler Question" touches on a number of other vital and compelling topics: men and their relationships to each other; male competition; the insecurity of middle aged men and women; infidelity; and multiculturalism in the modern society. Jacobson deftly weaves these topics throughout this brilliant novel, which is filled with humor and pathos. This is definitely one of my favorite novels of the year, and it replaces The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet as my favorite of the current list of Booker Prize finalists.
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