One central question to any story is why. Why does a character rob a bank? What drives someone to go to the same boring job day after day? Why does a lover turn cold? Why does a person perform a selfless act? What is the motivation for a character to behave in a certain way? For a story to work we have to believe in the characters motivation.
In “Assimilation” by E.L. Doctorow, the main character, Ramon, marries a young Russian woman who is related to the owner of the restaurant in which he works. It’ll pay $3,000. That seems like a motivating factor. Poor college graduate with aspirations of being a film director needs money. Do you buy it? Ramon consults with his brother, Leon, who’s in prison. Decides to go for it. At this point, we know Ramon needs money, and his brother is a criminal of some kind. The story progresses, Ramon is married to Jelena, things aren’t what the seem.
The Russian family is trying to control Ramon. It starts out small at first, but they want him to move in with them. We also learn that Leon isn’t just a petty criminal, but a well connected up and coming crime boss. Ramon on the other hand wants nothing to do with that lifestyle and disagrees with his brother on a moral level. Still, he’s let his brother pay his tuition.
So what’s motivating Ramon? His need to be different than Leon. His desire to honor his promises and live a moral life. He takes his false marriage seriously, even though no one else does. He falls in love with Jelena by choice. There are reasons for what Ramon does, but they are hard to believe or understand.
The story escalates to a point where something bad is going to happen to Ramon. Jelena’s boyfriend is going to come over from Russia. Someone will beat Jelena so it seems as though Ramon has abused her. This action will be grounds for a divorce and Ramon will be out of their lives. At this point, we also learn that the Russian family is gradually becoming mixed up in criminal activity.
Ramon confesses all of his feelings for Jelena, who has been pretty cold to him so far, and the two wind up on Leon’s doorstep having run away from the Russian family. It ends with Leon welcoming them in and saying, “Let the war begin.”
For this story to work, the reader has to believe in Ramon. He’s a simple dreamer type figure. Taken with a fancy he jumps into situations. Random interest seems to be his motivation. For me, it’s flimsy. I don’t buy it. He’s willing to commit fraud, he’s willing to be bought. He’s lost his moral high ground, believing that he really had it to begin with. The story ends with this Romeo and Juliet ending. Two lovers from quarreling families go to war. Even the names are similar, Ramon and Jelena. Are they running to Leon because of their love or their fear?
Putting aside my problems with the characters, the story is still enjoyable. Scenes are quick, well paced, and sparse. There are no unnecessary details. The overarching theme of assimilation is also well done. Doctorow does a nice job examining how people view one another. What does it mean to assimilate? Overall, a fast read that’s entertaining.