There’s a lot of sex in The Parting Gift by Evan Fallenberg (Other Press, September 4, 2018). Let’s start with that. Excessive, graphic, homoerotic sex which may turn off many readers. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let us consider where this vividly described sexuality leads its narrator-protagonist—an unnamed Jewish American currently camped on his friend Adam’s couch after returning from an extended stay in Israel.
In a book-length letter to Adam, the narrator offers a “long-overdue explanation of my mysterious appearance at your door these four months ago.”
The story the narrator tells starts at a Tel Aviv absorption center but veers in an unexpected direction after a visit to a nursery housing Israel’s most extensive collection of herbs and spices. There he meets Uzi, the spice guy.
“He was going about his business with no mind to me, while I was going about his business with no mind to myself,” the narrator explains. It is a case of lust at first sight. For the narrator, same-sex relations are nothing new but for Uzi, apparently, this greenhouse encounter is a first-time experience.
What follows is a relationship that starts out wholly sexual, but which swiftly develops into a live-in business partnership. The narrator studies his lover’s spices, learns how to cook with them, and then implements new ways to market them. Yet, the sensual nature of his endeavors is never far from mind. “Everything I cooked with an earthiness and sensuality I never knew food could possess. I swear there were times I wanted to bottle Uzi’s essence and cook with it.”
Along the way, the narrator meets Nina, Uzi’s ex-wife, who happens to live next door, as well as his three children. The eldest, Rinat, has an eating disorder of the type that can, unfortunately, accompany young troubled girls into adulthood. The narrator is privy to some of Rinat’s secrets but his friendship with the girl can’t prevent her from falling victim to the ugly side of sex addiction. And there is Ziad, the Palestinian day worker who will do anything, literally, to support his family.
The supporting cast of the story is described so realistically that we can easily picture what they look like and what they are thinking, but it’s the main character’s changing perspective on his relationship with Uzi that keeps us glued to the page. What started as love transforms into possessiveness and jealousy, and then ominously into a fatal attraction of obsession and explosive revenge.
We had been warned about the narrator’s character right from the start. He describes himself in his letter to Adam as “a man with a record in the crimes of love: Promises will be broken and vows will be trampled and feelings will be hurt—oh, far worse than that.”
But like Adam, as readers we must “assemble these facts … lay them in their proper places, line them up until they are there and you can make sense of them.”
The ‘parting gift’ mentioned in the novel’s title has multiple meanings. It refers not only to the explanatory letter written to the narrator’s friend but also to the narrator’s departure from his partnership with ‘the spice guy’. And for us, the readers, The Parting Gift is a well-written, compelling novel with a bold narrative that explores the frailty of human relationships, same-sex and otherwise.
Evan Fallenberg is an American-born Israeli author and a translator of Hebrew books, plays and films. His work has won or been short-listed for numerous awards, including the American Library Association Barbara Gittings Stonewall Award for Literature, the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and the PEN Translation Prize. His previous novels were Light Fell and When We Dance on Water.
Fallenberg teaches at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv and is faculty co-director of the Vermont College of Fine Arts International MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation. Fallenberg is the founder of Arabesque, a boutique hotel, situated in a restored and renovated Ottoman building in Acre, that serves as an arts and residency center.