Free Fruit for Young Widows – Nathan Englander

Free Fruit for Young Widows” by Nathan Englander feels like the first truly complete short story that I’ve read in the New Yorker recently. I’m thinking of completeness in terms of balance. The story is strong across the board, and needn’t compensate for any thin areas. For instance, stories like Gavin Highly or the Pura Principle which rely on imaginative language or humor to makeup for weak endings.

One could say “Free Fruit for Young Widows” is about how stories are told, and how they evolve. Our first introduction to the story of Shimmy and Professor Tendler opens with the line, “When the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser took control of the Suez Canal, threatening Western access to that vital route, an agitated France shifted allegiances, joining forces with Britain and Israel against Egypt.” It is matter of fact. Blatant. Emotionless. What follows though is full of emotion and grief. A life defining moment occurs for the two men. Later on, Shimmy tells his son the story, but the story evolves as the boy ages. At first, it is generalized, then has a few more details, until at last Shimmy tells his son the entire story.

A beautiful moment occurs when Shimmy and Etgar have the following exchange:

When Etgar was twelve, his father acknowledged the complexities of Tendler’s tale.
“Do you want to know why I can care for a man who once beat me? Because to a story there is context. There is always context in life.”
“That’s it?” Etgar asked.
“That’s it.”

As Etgar is provided with the context for Tendler’s actions, he reasons out his own thoughts on the subject.  Was it just for Tendler to act as he did?  Would Etgar act in a similar fashion if subjected to the same experience?  Are there areas of life where men and women cannot judge the actions of others?  The story operates on many levels, and as a result it is rich and worth returning to over time.  If you’re interested in the background for “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” click here to read an email interview with Nathan Englander.

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