Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
You Are Not What We Expected is a fascinating book that illuminates small, often hidden, parts of our lives. It's a collection of connected short stories from the Jewish community in Thornhill, a suburb north of Toronto.
Each story is told from the perspective of a different individual, and many characters appear in more than one story. For example, while the first story focuses on the character Isaac, a later one is told from the perspective of his grandniece, Ava. In this way, the stories inform one another, so that eventually the reader comes to understand the characters from a variety of views and situations.
At close to 240 pages, You Are Not What We Expected is a relatively quick read. It’s comprised of 13 short stories, most of which are between 15 and 20 pages long.
The writing is crisp and lovely. Ludwig doesn't ever waste words, and the words she chooses often deliver an emotional punch. Her writing evokes not only the physical space of a home, but also the emotional tension and familial bonds that resonate within it. She uses simple words to construct complexities.
By telling each story from a different person’s point of view, Ludwig gives us access to each individual's way of thinking: as readers, we are privy to how each character's mind works and how they think of other people. We're also able to gain a fuller sense of the interactions between characters, and witness where points of communication and understanding break down.
In many of the stories, people don't quite see eye to eye. The tension is often only partially explained; though it is evident enough that we know something is there. The boy in the story Pufferman, for example, may not fully understand what’s happening between his separated parents, or between his mother and his nanny. However, Ludwig includes subtle details that help the reader see what’s happening with the adults around him, and the emotions that are at play.
Overall, You Are Not What We Expected is about how people interact with others, and how what we do and say often doesn't line up with what we're actually thinking. It is at turns funny and heartbreaking, as well as emotionally illuminating. Ir examines bonds between people – and the points when those bonds become too much to bear.
You Are Not What We Expected is published by House of Anansi Press.