Red Hen Press, 2010
Reviewed by Traci Parks
Book Review Editor’s note: Vampires are taking over our lives, it seems, or at least our popular fiction and television programming. ‘Paranormal romance” is a hot trend in publishing. If you work with the reading public, as I do, you have seen the vampire rise out of its coffin to seduce countless young adult and adult readers. Post-Anne Rice sexual ambiguity and more aligned with Nosferatu, what is the appeal of the re-imagined vampire? Maybe, as the feminist mother in Janice Eidus’ The Last Jewish Virgin, notes, it’s part of today’s “retro and smug” sexuality. Or maybe it’s not. Traci Parks reviews Janice Eidus’ look at the vampire and the teen girl as roam in today’s New York City. ~Stephanie Brown, Book Review Editor
In The Last Jewish Virgin, Janice Eidus (The War of the Rosens; Vito Loves Geraldine; The Celibacy Club) reshapes the vampire myth with a feminist, Jewish twist and a distinct New York flavor. And as the heroine, Lilith, breaks from her Upper West Side roots to attend art school downtown and forge her own life, this vampire tale works equally well as a coming-of-age story, albeit one spiked with dark, campy erotica and a smart sense of humor.
Subtitled “a novel of fate,” Lilith’s sense of her destiny, pitted against the themes of vampires, Judaism, and her burgeoning sexuality, has many tracks. And although we know where she ends up from the very first page—in the book’s brief prologue, Lilith addresses the reader from the world of the undead, looking back on her past—how she gets to this end and how she battles the inevitable is full of suspense.
An aspiring fashion designer who lives with her Jewish intellectual feminist mother in contemporary New York City, Lilith Zeremba plans to conquer the fashion world (she’s going to call her first clothing line “The Edgy Femme”). To become successful, Lilith is determined to remain chaste—the last Jewish virgin. “Lust, sex, love, and marriage will all take backseats to my ambition,” she tells the reader. Lilith’s choice of career and hungry ambition puts her at odds with Beth Katz-Zeremba, who’s raised her only child to lead a life dedicated to tzedukah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). Beth is equally disapproving of Lilith’s attitude toward sex, which she finds “retro and smug." The author’s take on mother-daughter conflict is complex and engrossing.
But it’s the conflict between Lilith’s ambition/virginity and the temptations that come her way that fires the book forward with a page-turning suspense. And Eidus colors this conflict with an affectionate send-up of Lilith’s youthful hypocrisy—which, along with the book’s distinct New York locales, adds to the fun. Here’s Lilith deconstructing, with unwitting seduction, the outfit she puts on for her first day of art school: “Pantyhose that whispered as I pulled them on; pointed, knife-sharp boots; a tight-fitting silk dress that swept the floor as I walked….” To complete her look, she paints her lips scarlet and draws two bite marks on her neck. “I was the virgin who’d been bitten, and also the hungry vampire.”
At Bennett Institute of Art and Design (a stand-in for New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology), Lilith’s resolve to remain a virgin gets a spooky, steamy runaround when she becomes enticed by two very different men. There’s fellow-student Colin Abel, a self-described anti-Andy Warhol, who sweetly comes on to her and whom she feels she can resist. But with her cold-as-ice drawing teacher, Baron Rock, it’s a whole other story. When Rock singles Lilith out during roll call the first day, she describes his smile as “heart-and-time stopping and vampire-hungry.” Then during the in-class assignment to draw “Death,” Lilith is beset by a vision of Rock laid out in an open coffin. When he propositions her to be his model, she snaps out of her spell, writing him off—as would her mother—as “one of those men who objectify women.” And yet this exchange with her professor leaves her frightened and aroused. As Eidus mines both the comedy and chill of Lilith’s exquisite pain, she presents a delicious parody of the pretensions of art school.
Lilith’s home life, in contrast, is dominated by Beth Katz-Zeremba and her circle of friends, which includes her boyfriend, Mike, who teaches psychology at Lehman College in the Bronx and her best friend, whom Lilith calls Tante Molly, a biracial, bisexual, Jewish actress who lives in a federally subsidized high rise for artists (a stand-in for Manhattan Plaza on West 43rd St.). As Beth articulates her views (on, for example, the role of sexual fantasy in the lives of Jewish women—“We can—and we should—be responsible for them”), Lilith retreats to her bedroom where she’s continually beset by vampire visions. As these visions intensify, and Lilith’s sense of desire becomes overwhelming, the action heats up. And in an eerily surreal turn-of-events, Beth Katz-Zeremba gets dragged into the drama, and Lilith is forced to act.
In likening the fear of vampires to a young woman’s fear of her burgeoning sexuality—and flight from her mother—Janice Eidus boldly walks a fine line between satire and sincerity, while slyly merging the vampire myth with the plight of the young artist embracing a life outside the mainstream.
Traci Parks’s plays have been performed in New York (HERE Arts Center, The Culture Project, The Directors Company, La Mama), Seattle (Seattle Rep, Northwest Playwrights Alliance), and Los Angeles (Moving Arts). Most recently, her play Sex Bomb was performed at Seattle Rep’s Poncho Forum, and her play At the Recital was a finalist for the 2011 Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Heideman Award. She works as a freelance writer and copy editor in NYC.