Two events in November 1989 mark the lives of the novel’s characters. One is the death of a woman discovered naked in the snow outside the Weinstein house, during a massive storm buffeting Cleveland on Thanksgiving. The other event is the fall of the Berlin Wall, taking place two weeks earlier – an upturning of the old order that corresponds to these characters’ desire to change their lives.
Jack Weinstein wants to save his marriage to Sarah, the intense, unpredictable daughter of the late legendary German-Jewish classical pianist and ‘sacred monster’ Alexander Petrov. Unaware of what is causing the collapse of the marriage, he tries to confront her dissatisfaction and shifting allegiances, and much of the action revolves around her Dostoyevskian intensity, her repartee, and the friendships she forms and betrays. Sarah and Jack are in their forties and have a sixteen-year-old daughter, Sue, absorbed by her own efforts to deal with boys and drugs.
Joseph, Sarah’s brother, is visiting this Thanksgiving week. He is gay, and his friendship with his straight brother-in-law unfolds dramatically here. Joseph finds himself in the middle of the couple’s conflicts. The week’s events are told by the trio of family members. Both Joseph and Jack are musicians. Joseph Petrov is, like his late father, a piano virtuoso, and Jack is a classical composer and music professor; one of his compositions has just been nominated for a Grammy in contemporary classical music.
The Weinsteins’ friends have their own turbulence. And friendship – both healing and broken – becomes an issue in all their lives. Each of these characters has a piece of the solution to the troubles in the family’s lives, to their joy and grief, to their betrayals, and to a death – possibly a murder – that takes place in their midst. The Blacks, who live around the corner, are about to declare bankruptcy, for Jacob has been denied tenure and become a ‘freeway professor,’ teaching one class here, another there across town. There are their mutual friends, the Sinclairs, and especially Robert Sinclair becomes the target of Jacob’s bitterness about his life.
One of the Weinsteins’ best friends is an artist and a bohemian of sorts, Tom Mubar, who is divorced and shares custody of his seventeen-year-old son, Paul. Sarah has an affair, and when it collapses, she is drawn to Tom, who understands – she believes – what a disaster her life has become, but she painfully discovers that he does not reciprocate her feelings and is himself trying to endure his own shocks and dangers.
Everything comes to a head when the Weinsteins celebrate Thanksgiving with Joseph and their friends. At dinner, confrontations erupt from the tensions brewing all week, and Sarah, already depressed and disoriented, plummets into potentially suicidal despair. “The Fall of the Berlin Wall” is a tragicomic portrait of the confusions and heartbreaking disasters in love and friendship, and it also pictures what may endure our collisions – whether it be love, art and music, or simply the welter of conflicting passions in youth and middle age. Six stories presenting the startling past of the characters are integrated into the end of the novel. (The work is about 51,000 words.)