Stainer by Iolanthe Woulff truly lives up to being a novel of the “Me Decade”. Set in 1975, we follow Ben Steiner, a Jewish Columbia undergrad who at his core is a decent person but wishes to be “in” with the “in crowd.” On the night of his twenty-first birthday he attends a party that will change his life forever. He meets P.T. Deighland, a wiseass from Princeton, who is clearly up to no good, and Rebecca Glaser who he falls for immediately. His new-found friendship with Deighland and his own youthful temptations lead him to make escalating bad choices that may not only harm his budding romance with Rebecca, but expose this alternate life to the rest of the Jewish community. It is a classic journey of self-discovery, but one with a lightness of humor that keeps it from becoming too dismal.
Woulff does a wonderful job with blending the scenery of 70’s New York City with the strikingly personal conflict of Ben Steiner. The cultural tropes of the Jewish community come into full play and provide the initial conflict of the individual strikes out away from the old traditions of his culture. The fact that Ben lives in a converted residence hall with other Jewish scholars from Columbia. He thirsts for the experience outside of his roots that has been denied to him all these years, and turning twenty-one he feels that he is empowered to do so.
In some ways, this novel is very much the spiritual successor of Catcher in the Rye, but considering it is about the 1970s, it feels much more relevant to our present age. I found the pacing to be a bit of a slow burn, since it weaves this inner journey that Ben must make in order to reach the final beats of the narrative. Woulff provides a story with rich character development, which is impressive for a book that is trying to tackle not only personal conflict, but societal conflict and the social statements at large. Ben suffers from the divide his life takes after the party, where he hides pieces of his life from his Jewish friends.
The book is particularly polished, which is enjoyable and Woulff’s attention to detail and the interiority of her characters to be particularly good. It is also such a wonderful tale of how we can sometimes self-sabotage ourselves and not be able to see the “good” that is often right in front of us.
Stainer presents itself as a coming of age work and one that I think all ages should be able to enjoy. YA readers may take a particular pleasure in reading this novel.
Pages: 345 | ASIN: B071G8KFX1
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