You or Someone Like You introduces its two main characters in a scene in which movie executive Howard Rosenbaum is leaving his wife Anne. The book then goes back a year, to a point at which Anne's life changes considerably. Despite having a doctorate in English literature, she has until then been a housewife who tended to her garden, raised her son, and went to events with her prominent husband. A scene at a dinner party illustrates how Howard sucked up all the attention in the room (he even sucked up a teaching job at UCLA that Anne had originally applied for). But at that same dinner party, a producer asks Anne to make her a reading list. The reading list develops into a reading group (Anne is adamant that it is not a book club) and then a series of specialized reading groups for directors, writers, producers, etc. As the popularity of the groups feeds Anne's ego, her confidence grows and she is asked to read scripts, make recommendations about books worthy of becoming films, and even become a producer.
While we read the literary analysis Anne provides to her groups, we also learn the back story of Anne and Howard's apparently happy marriage. Howard was raised as an observant Jew in Brooklyn; Anne grew up all over the world, wherever her British father's diplomatic career took the family. Although Howard's parents disapproved of Anne, they married, moved to Los Angeles, had a son Sam, and apparently left all thoughts of religion behind them. Much of their parenting and their own relationship seems to take place through reading and/or quoting literary works. Through Anne's recollections, we also learn that she sees herself as an elitist but not a snob (the distinction to my mind is misplaced, as she appears to be both).
At any rate, as we read about Anne's emerging career, it seems likely that the shift of power between Anne and Howard will be the cause of the rift portrayed in the opening scene. But no! The cause of the rift--and the subject of the second half of the book, which borders on being a screed--is Howard's sudden decision to return to the practice of Judaism and thus to reject his gentile wife and son. The precipitating event is Sam's experience on a spring-break trip to Israel, where he is expelled from a yeshiva for being "unclean" (because his mother is not Jewish, he is not Jewish under Jewish law). For me as a parent (who is neither Jewish nor religious but does know something about diverse families), Howard's response to this event is completely unbelievable. However, it gives Chandler Burr (who, according to an "Author's Note," had a similar experience as a young man) the opportunity, through Anne, to rail against an Orthodox definition of Jewishness that is exclusionary and based on racial categories (and the hypocrisy regarding anti-Semitism that he perceives as inherent in this definition). Because Howard is no longer speaking to her, Anne makes her points through her reading groups and through a speech on why people hate literature; evidently in Hollywood no remark goes without multiple repetitions.
The human tendency to divide people into "us" and "them" is a persistent problem worthy of discussion. I'm not persuaded by Burr's analysis, in part because he does not deal with power differentials, which I believe are critical to understanding group identity. Still, Burr could have written a thought-provoking article posing the same questions and explicating how literature casts light on the subject. Unfortunately, framing the questions in novelistic form doesn't add much to the discussion. The book's two halves feel like they belong in different novels (or perhaps a novel and a nonfiction work), and the characters' responses to life events don't seem real. One example in addition to Howard's response to Sam's experience in Israel: would you take your recently out teenage son and drop him off at the home of a gay writer you met once for three hours (when you witnessed an accident in which the writer hit a gardener with his car), so your son could learn about being a well-adjusted gay man? I think not. The substitution of literary discourse for conversation becomes wearisome. And, on a more picayune point, the incessant name-dropping of Hollywood luminaries and New York's literary lions is annoying and unnecessary.
. . . it is impossible to overestimate the pleasure of being included. Even for one who has never much wanted to be.
Burr has established a website where readers can comment on the book or the issues it raises: www.annerosenbaum.com.