Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The World to Come by Dara Horn




(Mildly Recommended)




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Dara Horn’s second novel, The World to Come, combines a family story with spiritual longing and produces a result that will captivate many readers. Protagonist Benjamin Ziskind longs to restore the missing pieces of his life, represented by a Marc Chagall artwork that he steals from a museum. Following the theft, we learn about the Ziskind’s, Chagall, and the plight of Russian Jews in the Soviet era. Throughout the book, each character develop, the plot lines interweave, and the differences between the fake and the real are revealed. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 3, pp. 46-50:


That night Sara was radiant. Her radiance came from confidence, from a failure to care about what anyone else thought of her, and Ben envied her for that. She was a doctoral student in art history and an artist herself, ten minutes younger than Ben, and she wasn’t what any­one, other than people who knew her well, would call attractive. Tonight, for example, it was clear that she hadn’t been teaching, only working alone: her right hand was encrusted with blue paint, and her hair was pulled back with a white garbage tie. But Sara had the kind of beauty that would sneak up on you, catching your eye only when you saw her burst out laughing, her blue eyes crinkling into dark slits in her face, or when you saw her with her head dipped into a book, her perfect fingers resting on the pale nape of her neck, or tracing the edge of her forehead where you could see the tiny dark brown hairs emerg­ing from her skin, held in absurdly straight lines by her tight ponytail until they were allowed to race into wild curls. And then you couldn’t believe that you hadn’t always thought she was beautiful.

They were long past the point where they bothered saying hello to each other. Even phone calls between them generally started with a brutal question, going straight for the jugular. This time, she looked around the room, kicking lightly at the piles of questions on the floor. She plucked one off the rug, read it, and smiled.

“The Book of the Dead,” she said.

It was the answer to the mummy question. “You’re an American Genius,” he told her.

She snorted, then glanced at Ben’s lap and smirked. “How’s the book?”

He slammed it shut on his knee, trying to think of an obnoxious retort. But he found that he couldn’t even growl at her the way he wanted to. He couldn’t help it; he was still smiling.

Sara looked him in the face. “What’s so funny? Did you meet some­one at the museum?”

Ben glanced at the mirror built into the wall behind his sister, and saw what Sara had not yet noticed: the painting resting on the bed behind him. And then all of his usual resentment of Sara of her talent, of the competence that made their mother give her power of attorney, of her brilliant marriage to the brilliant husband whom Ben himself had long ago deposited in her lap—evaporated. Tonight, at least, he was the one with the bigger news.

Ben turned to the treasure lying behind him, picking it up and turn­ing back toward Sara as he stood, holding it against his chest. “Do you recognize this?” he asked.

It took her a moment to respond, and when she did, it was as if someone else were speaking in her voice—as if, Ben thought, she were only a shell of herself, and the real Sara was floating freely around the room. “From the house,” she murmured. Ben grinned as he watched her gazing at the painting, mesmerized. It was a long time before she looked at him again. “You bought a copy of it?”

“It’s not a copy. It’s the one from our living room,” he said. “Look, you can even see in the corner where you smeared nail polish on it.”

Sara leaned toward him and peered at the painting’s corner. “Oh, God, you’re right,” she breathed, and stayed there, staring at it. “Where did you find this?”

“On the wall in the museum.”


“It was part of the exhibit.”

Sara snapped her head up and stepped back until she had her back against the wall. She stood there, silent.

“There weren’t any alarms or anything. I was kind of surprised.”

Ben watched her face tremble as she struggled to speak. An eternity seemed to pass before she managed to form a word. “Ben, this is a crime,” she said slowly. “A crime. This is not like shoplifting in a drug­store or something. You’re going to go to jail for this.”

“Only if I’m caught.”

“Only if you’re caught?” she shrieked.

He ignored her, turning the painting back toward himself and sink­ing to the floor. Sara squatted beside him, still fuming. He pretended to be entranced with the painting, avoiding looking at her until she glanced away. Sara leaned her head back against the door and stuck out her lower lip, blowing air up toward the loose hairs on her forehead to make them fly. Sitting on the floor with her, Ben suddenly had the strange feeling that they were eight years old again, when sitting on the floor was completely expected, admiring a painting which, he had to admit, could have been an eight-year-old’s work. A vague memory entered his mind of sitting with her on the floor like this once, using paints to cover the wall of her room with fake paw prints, until their parents discovered them. The warm wave of longing that ran through his body embarrassed him.

But Sara was still shocked. “You can’t just—you can’t just—”

“Why not?” Ben asked. “You mean it’s wrong for me to steal it, but when it gets stolen from us, then that’s perfectly—”

“You know we can’t prove that,” Sara interrupted. “And even if we could—”

Suddenly Ben slammed the side of the painting down against the floor. The man in the painting lay prone, rattled but intact. “Sara, I’m sick of it!” he shouted. The pitch of his voice surprised even him. It was the way he should have shouted at his wife, but he had never had the courage. “I am sick, sick, sick of having things taken from me. Don’t you get it? Our family is finished, Sara. This is the one thing we have left.” He took a breath, and the man in the painting shuddered. “You know you only came here to talk to me about selling the house. There’s nothing left anymore.”

The man in the painting trembled beyond Ben’s squinting eyelids. But Sara’s body was solid and steady, barely moving as she tilted her head back against the wall. “I didn’t come here to talk about the house,” she said.

Ben swallowed, feeling blood thumping in his neck. “What do you mean?”

“I came to tell you that I’m having a baby, my dear dumb brother.” She smiled, and then, when Ben didn’t say anything, began to laugh.

Ben stared at her, watching her laugh and wondering if it was some kind of joke. But as he raised his eyebrows at her, he saw her nodding her head, her lips trembling.

“Leonid is working late tonight, but I couldn’t wait to tell you. I’m due right after Passover.”

It was a long time before Ben was able to speak. His shock slowly dis­sipated into a thin, wavering jealousy, blurring the air in the room. The whole world was leaving him behind. When his voice finally came loose from his throat, he tried to congratulate her. Instead he blurted, “But Sara, are you—are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure.”

He stuttered, choked, struggling to find something to say, anything that would hide how he really felt. “No, I know, but it’s just—I mean, you just got married, Sara. Are you sure you wanted—”

Sara looked up at the ceiling, and Ben suddenly noticed a drop of pale blue paint in the dent below her nose. “We planned it that way,” she said softly. “I was hoping that Mom would—” She looked at her hands. “Well.”

Ben looked at his sister’s hands, and then glanced again at the paint­ing. God, he thought, a baby. And their parents, who would never see it. But a baby. For all of them.

Still sitting on the floor, the two of them embraced or, really, the three of them embraced. In her arms Ben stammered his congratula­tions and then fell silent, sensing the presence of the new person, the not-yet person within her. The three of them held each other, dream­ing unborn dreams.

Sara stood up, as if breaking a spell. She picked up the painting and placed it carefully on the bed. “They’re going to come after you for this,” she said. “You need to take it out of your apartment. Stash it somewhere else.”


“Anywhere, just not here. I don’t want you in jail when the baby comes.” The baby. “Don’t worry, we’re going to figure out a way to get you out of this.”

Ben grimaced. “It’s our painting. You can tell me whatever you want, but I’m not going to turn anything in—not the painting and not myself. Just try and make me.” But already all he could think about was the baby.

“Just try and stay out of jail,” Sara said.

Long after she left, Ben lay on his bed and suddenly found that he couldn’t sleep. Instead he imagined himself flying, gazing at the ground far below and seeing, from his aerial view, two paths out of the necropolis that might not be dead ends.


Horn’s writing can become predictable, and that may distract some readers, as will some facts that she seems to need to plant whether they make a difference or not. The World to Come opens a reader’s imagination to the differences between the real and the imaginary, the authentic and the forged. The characters are well developed and the story is memorable.


Steve Hopkins, April 24, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2006 issue of Executive Times


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