Book Review: Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, by Bess Kalb

I could tell this girl she’d marry the love of her life in a year. She’d leave the tenement in Brooklyn and see Cairo and Tuscany and China and Switzerland and Greece and Gaza and Paris – Paris more times than she could count. She’d visit her mother’s village in Belarus (then part of Russia), the village her mother fled when she was thirteen years old, and that night she’d order a Kir Royale at the hotel bar. She’d have two worshipful sons and one daughter.

Nobody Will Tell You This But Me

I saw this book on Nigella Lawson’s Instagram page: “I loved this book more than I can say,” she wrote, “I first bought it as an e-book and adored it so much, I got it as an audiobook. Then I listened to it (twice) and loved it, if possible, even more. So then I ordered it in hardback (and got a few as presents while I was about it) and am excitedly impatient to read it again.” When Nigella gives a book a review like that, you buy the book.

And I’m so glad I did.

Written in her grandmother’s voice, Bess Kalb writes a memoir that spans the generations: this is a book about brave, adventurous and strong-minded women. We learn about Rose, Bess’ great-grandmother who arrived in New York after escaping from the pogroms of Belarus, about her mother, Robbie, who rebelled against Bess’ grandmother (Bobby) and left home to travel through Europe, and we learn about Bess leaving to go to San Francisco to find her own place in the world. Told through a mixture of her grandmother’s stories (it is as if she is sat opposite you telling them), transcripts of voicemails that Bess had saved from Bobby, and telephone conversations between the two of them. I haven’t read a memoir that is so full of warmth and humour, and where life (the joy and the sadness) fizzes throughout every page.

‘I love you. I Love you. I love you.’ Three times. Never enough.

Nobody Will Tell You This But Me

Bobby is a character and her voice and attitude come through so strongly in her narration of events. She argues with her family, she fixes them, drops everything to fly to the other side of the world to be there for them, she cares for them and she makes mistakes around them. Bobby also provides advice on everything from dress buying (“Bessie, if you try on a dress and you don’t immediately want to parade outside the dressing room and show it off to everyone in the store, take it off and forget it ever existed”), to where to live (not San Francisco), and what to eat. There were so many moments in the book that I laughed out loud. I also completely lost it at the end of the book and cried, a lot.

The story of how Rose travelled from Belarus to New York is so powerfully written – the details of the journey are told vividly but yet there is little time to be sad. The awful conditions of the journey got her to New York, but then she had to continue moving forwards. Rose worked hard to make a life for her children, giving birth on the dining room table (so as not to ruin her bed linen), and finding a nickel to go to the movies. The book is poignant and uplifting, where even the hardest of events are told with an sense of humour and hope.

If the earth is cracking behind your feet, you go forward. One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other.

Nobody Will Tell You This But Me

I also enjoyed reading about Bess’ mother whose life was also full of adventure and rebellion throughout her childhood and journey through medical school. The book so beautifully writes about how families don’t always get on and sometimes it’s hard to find common ground.

There is so much love in this book, so much life. So much humour as well as grief. It’s such a powerful reminder to work hard and live life with joy: read books and visit art galleries, travel and see the world, talk to people to find out their stories. It reminds us to make the most of the time we have and make sure that those who matter know how much they are loved.  

Published by luggageandscribble

Oh hey, just a girl who loves reading.

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