This eloquent novel is loosely based on a newspaper account of a New Jersey domestic tragedy. The protagonist, European-born widower Ben Shein, is middle-aged, a successful furrier in Paterson, New Jersey, in the early 1940s. Lonely and ghost-haunted by his dead wife Tess, Ben pursues and marries the young and beautiful shopgirl Judith Karger against the advice of his brother Nat, who struggles to leave the family’s fur business. Their marriage soon disintegrates, and Ben’s ten-year-old daughter Susan becomes an innocent victim of the bitter unhappiness between her father and stepmother. Paterson is as much a character as any of the city’s inhabitants and comes to stand for any urban American locale where immigrants strive to assimilate as they play out the dramas of their lives.
Discussion Topics

1. What role does the desire for love play in the lives of the major characters?

2. Discuss the dreams Ben Shein has of his dead wife Tess. What did Tess mean to him and to their surviving daughter Susan?

3. Why does Ben Shein want to marry again? Why does he choose Judith Karger against the warnings of his brother Nat?

4. Compare the relationships of the various paired characters: the lovers, Judith and Ben, Renee and Nat; the friends, Susan and Joan; the parent, Brona with each of her sons. What other pairs do you find?

5. What emotions do you feel for the stepmother Judith Karger?

6. Discuss the life and career of the furrier Ben Shein, tremendously successful in business, tragically flawed in his search for love.

7. How is the Shein family shaped by their immigrant experience? Can the Sheins maintain their ethnic identity and at the same time assimilate into American society?

8. In what ways does the author avoid stereotyped portrayals of Jews? How do the various characters, many from different backgrounds, interact with each other?

9. What role does Joe Mavet play in the novel?

10. Discuss the transmuting of newspaper headlines into fiction. How do the events of this novel relate to today’s news stories of passion and violence in families? Is it possible to really explain the forces that drive people to desperate acts?

home biography works links contact