Take What You Need

Take What You Need

By Idra Novey

Posted by Etta Donnell


In 2017, author Idra Novey won the coveted Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish literature. Her darkly humorous novel, Take What you Need, might be a contender again. Novey’s inspiration comes from Louise Bourgeois, an icon of feminist art, whose work challenged a conservative patriarchal world-view.

Jean, “an unclassifiable character," the main protagonist in the novel obsesses about two implacable passions: to create “something new,” and her next-door neighbor, scrawny, young Eliot Hounslow.

At sixty, Jean lives alone in Sevlick, a dying town in S. Allegheny Mountains. Surrounded by bleak dilapidated houses, derelict, boarded-up storefronts and smashed glass windows with weekly robberies and gun shots heard every night, Jean’s neighbors are equally, “a sad trickle of humanity.”

Jean’s life takes a downturn when she abandons her comfortable home and a ten-year marriage to David and stepdaughter Leah. Jean raised Leah for nine years but was never permitted to see her after she left them.

Jean chose to live on the “periphery of life” rather than endure being deflated by her husband’s condescending remarks whenever she showed an interest in art. Her feelings were reminiscent of the resentment she felt toward her father who taunted young Jean shouting “you’re too girly” when Jean wanted to become a welder. After college, she learned welding on YouTube.

Jean spends her days constructing metal boxes. She names them "Mangelments." She turns these into totem shaped towers on which she paints esoteric statements that reflect her inner life. One of these reads, “What is a stepmother, anyhow?” Leah has long swept Jean out of her life, convinced Jean is an “evil stepmother”.

Jean often watches the family next door intrigued with Eliot, the only male in the house. Unemployed Eliot sits on the broken stoop of his ramshackle house smoking and "spitting on the grass.” When their water is cut off, the family uses Jean’s spigot to supply them with drinking water. Long after his family is evicted from their home, Eliot remains the water carrier and Jean’s sole companion. Homeless, Elliot intermittently sneaks into Jean’s place. He sleeps on the floor, showers and at times assists Jean carrying the heavy metal sheets to weld her boxes. Jean yearns to cross the narrow boundary of their harmless connectedness, fully aware her “wolf” instincts would terminate future interaction between them.

Idra Novey opens a floodgate of repressed emotions between two disaffected characters. She ingeniously welds an incongruous association between an artist and her unlikely muse, both of whom defy the norms of propriety that fly in the face of reason. With piercing psychological savvy, Novey inhabits the private world of a woman seeking affirmation in both life and art.