Book review: Local tale of love, culture


In the preface to "Star Crossed, a memoir" by Berkshire County resident Bette Isacoff, we see her as a woman who has no fear of going after what she wants. Yet the portrait she paints of her girlhood in 1950s Spring field, makes it clear that she was raised to be meek and mild, a self-effacing ornament to her family, even if she seethed inwardly at the role.

The secret to her transformation from doormat to confident woman? Love, of course.

At 21, the devoutly Cath olic Bette Francesconi fell in love with a 17-year-old Jewish high school student, Richard Isacoff. The rest, as they say, is history -- but a very specific history that shines a light on the cultural changes of America in the 1960s and beyond.

The early chapters are a bit unfocused, rambling through anecdotes from her extremely sheltered childhood, but Isacoff's narrative picks up steam when she heads to college. After the claustrophobic innocence of her upbringing, getting away from her parents and seeing a bit more of the world -- even from within the confines of a Catholic women's college -- is a welcome relief, and the reader vividly feels the giddiness and possibility that she experienced there. When her first student-teaching assignment brings her to Richard's high school, she meets her future husband and her story finds its groove.

The two don't hit it off right away, but as they get to know each other, they discover an unexpected companionship and solace in each other. Their courtship is sweet, chaste and quick: seven weeks from meeting to engagement. Theirs is a charming love story -- but where a traditional love story might end, in this one the engagement is where the drama begins, as both their families express disbelief, disapproval, and, in her case, attempts to forbid the relationship entirely. At first Bette and Richard's age difference seems the bigger hurdle, if only for logistical reasons (she graduates from college and returns to live with her parents at a time when he's just embarking on his own college education), but their religious and cultural difference is, predictably, where their relatives draw battle lines. As Isacoff writes, "The difference in our religions was the elephant-in-the-living-room. My parents were horrified, his parents chose to ignore it, but we embraced it as an object of curiosity and wonder."

Indeed, it's inspiring to read of their attempts to familiarize themselves with each other's religious traditions, even in the face of parental prohibitions. They sneak away from their homes to attend Shabbat services together on Friday nights and Mass on Sunday mornings, so they can get more comfortable with what they plan to marry into. (That she is the church organist for those Mass services, and begins playing melodies on the organ that she's learned in synagogue, is a lovely detail.)

Her family gradually comes around, though his is a tougher sell. In examining the perspective of each set of relatives, Isacoff gives us fascinating glimpses of New England in the ‘60s, cities like Springfield and New Haven, Conn., sketched as melting pots in which nothing really melted. Jews and Catholics, Italians and Poles, blacks and whites, all these subcultures didn't blend together so much as warily co-exist, while these two young people willingly stepped out of their own worlds and into each other's. At times, I wished for more exploration of the interplay of cultures that makes up the background of "Star Crossed," but that's not the story Isacoff set out to tell here.

Instead she stays focused on romance -- and, embedded in that, a coming-of-age tale. Prior to meeting Richard, Bette had accepted all the strictures her parents placed on her life. But when they try to prevent her from seeing the man she loves, she stands up for herself for the first time. Oddly enough, her love for a younger man is what leads her to take charge of her own life and become an adult. Which, to a modern reader, may be as satisfying as the assurance that this couple would go on to live happily ever after.


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