Since You Left Me is a forthcoming brand-new YA novel by Allen Zadoff, who is also the author of Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have and My Life, the Theater, and Other Tragedies. The story centers on sixteen-year-old Sanskrit Aaron Zuckerman, a student at a Jewish high school who is struggling to have faith. It’s difficult to grasp the concept of God when everyone around him keeps failing him. His mom seems to love yoga more than she loves either of her kids. Sanskrit’s dad manages to visit with his kids one weekend a month, but he spends most of his time preparing for the “big one.” Even Sanskrit's best friend Herschel has grown distant since taking a trip to Israel and coming back with a deep devotion to HaShem (the name for God in Judaism). And there’s The Initials - a girl so special to Sanskrit he can’t even say her name. She stopped speaking to him nearly ten years ago, and he still has no idea why. Things only get more complicated when Sanskrit, tired of making excuses for his mother’s absence at school functions, lies and says she was in a terrible accident.
I am really interested in the way religion and religious people are treated in young adult fiction, which is why I initially downloaded this book from NetGalley. From the get-go, I knew that I had made a good choice. I am not especially familiar with Jewish culture, but my lack of prior knowledge truly didn’t matter, as Zadoff incorporates lots of details to set the scene. In the space of a few chapters, I understood the significance of Sanskrit’s role as the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, the idea of young adults being “flipped” when they visit Israel, and the varying ways in which Jews practice - or don’t practice - their religion. I also really felt for Sanskrit, whose desire to believe is constantly getting tangled up with his skepticism about the existence of God. I think teens, especially, can relate to Sanskrit’s desire to know himself, and to know what he believes and feel settled about it, because most of us go through that type of identity crisis during adolescence.
The other really great thing about this book is how it confronts unfortunate circumstances with a sense of humor. Much of the comic relief in the story comes from Sanskrit’s little sister, Sweet Caroline, who is twelve, but growing up too fast due to her parents’ absenteeism. The dialogue between the two siblings is one of the highlights of the story, and rings very true to the way brothers and sisters interact with one another. I also really enjoyed the absurdity of Sanskrit’s mother’s love affair with an Indian guru, who meditates in the yoga studio bathroom and finds followers by claiming to believe in nothing.
Though this book will probably appeal to Jewish teens, I really see it as a story for everyone. Lots of common themes run through the story - divorce, parents who start dating again, sibling relationships, best friendships, lies, faith, and identity - and readers will find plenty to love about Sanskrit and many of the supporting characters as well. It’s wonderful to find yet another young adult novel with religious themes that judges neither the believer nor the non-believer for his personal choices. No matter where teens are in their journeys of faith, they can find a kindred spirit in Sanskrit.