This is an “I liked it but” review – and really, book, it’s not you, it’s me. I think I’d like this book more if I weren’t so close to it. It’s set in South Philly in the 1950s. That’s my city, and though not my time it’s certainly my family’s. My grandparents grew up in South Philly, my parents in West Philly, my brother and I in the Northeast, as the city’s Jewish neighborhoods shifted. My great-grandfather died of a heart attack while crossing South Street, where he had a candy store. When Nick in the book goes to youth dances on Friday nights, my dad might have been at those dances (he’s Jewish, of course, but he wasn’t above pretending to be Catholic when the nuns were giving out candy; I suspect his principles might also have been elastic enough to dance with Catholic girls. So I feel pretty entrenched in this setting, and as is common when you read a story in your hometown, it doesn’t quite ring true.

The geography is OK as far as I can tell (my knowledge of South Philly is pretty much limited to the airport and the stadiums, though apparently I’m going to a party there in a few weeks. It’s the time that’s out of joint, and to a lesser degree the people. I undertand why it has to be in the 1950s, so that WWII stories can be mentioned, but it wasn’t totally necessary – The stories of the Nazis could as well have been pogrom stories (there’s no shortage, after all). The stories and characters and clothing don’t feel like the 1950s, more like a few decades earlier – it feels more like my grandparents’ city than my parents. The parents of the main characters came to the US as adults, but the big spate of immigration to those neighborhoods was earlier than that – most of my grandparents came over as toddlers in the 1910s. And if the parents in the story came over as adults just before the War, given that they were all Polish immigrants, I’d expect a lot more tension between the Catholics and the Jews. Actually, the relationships between the two communities does seem OK for the ‘1950s, given a couple generations to settle in to America; it just feels off because the story so strongly feels like an earlier time. Also, my parents’ generation does not tend to be as fluent in Yiddish as the Jewish kids in the story.

Also, this is a small thing but a couple of the words were wrong. At one point she refers to the family’s “brownstone”. Nope, that’s New york. In Philadelphia it’s rowhouses. And there’s one point where the grandmother uses a Very Bad Word – it’s only a minor insult in Engligh, but in Yiddish I do not think she would have used that word at all, no matter how angry she was – and if she were angry enough with someone for a word that bad (as I thought she was when I read it) then I do not think she’d have been back on friendly terms with that person within a few pages without some explanation.

That aside, I liked it a lot. It’s magical realism complete with cockroaches and Kafka, but it has a flavor a bit more like urban fantasy in the older sense of that term – fantasy and magic set in a city and very much of it. One of the many likeable elements is that it has older people (parents and grandparents) who have agency and interests that aren’t only tied to the kids – they have their own lives and loves. It’s a good book – Philadelphian readers might just need to ignore a few niggles.