City of Laughter

The protagonist of Temim Fruchter’s remarkable debut novel, a queer grad student studying Jewish folklore, describes her work as collecting scraps. In the wake of her father’s death, 30-year-old Shiva decides to get her master’s, hoping to unravel the family mysteries her mother has kept hidden from her all her life. Shiva eventually travels to Warsaw, where a series of experiences, from a night in a queer bar to a performance of a famous Jewish play, lead her to a deeper understanding of herself, her mother and her ancestral heritage.

This novel, like Shiva’s work, is a collection of beautiful scraps—scraps of folktales and memory, hidden family histories, love letters, accounts of strange happenings in the past and present—all tangled together and rewoven into a whole that’s strange, lush, imaginative and pulsing with life. Fruchter draws on folklore remembered from her own childhood, as well as a whimsical (and sometimes dark) universe of invented tales to create something entirely new.

The narrative refuses to sit still, jumping between points of view, decades and countries as Fruchter traces four generations of Jewish women from a tiny Polish shtetl in the early 20th century to contemporary New York. Fruchter’s rich and unwavering exploration of queer lineages, alongside matrilineal and Jewish ones, is extraordinary. As Shiva becomes more deeply immersed in the lives of her foremothers, those foremothers become more vibrant and detailed, in prose that moves from shimmering and dreamlike to sharply funny to wonderfully contemplative.

Readers looking for easy explanations will not find them in City of Laughter. Readers looking for questions—and the spaces they open—will find them in abundance. This is a book full of belly laughs, intergenerational wonder, queer beauty, Jewish history, and storytelling that reshapes worlds. It’s a story about the work it takes to look into a rupture—in yourself, in your family, in history—and, through looking, begin to transform it.

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