Book review: “The Majority,” an RBG novel by Elizabeth L. Silver

By the time she died in September 2020, at 87, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had been a willing cultural icon for decades, the subject of a documentary, a feature film and an illustrated workout book written by her physical trainer. Her likeness as “the Notorious RBG” was emblazoned on tote bags, coffee mugs and T-shirts. She was even a collectible black-robed action doll wielding a gavel. It’s therefore likely she would have been at least intrigued by starring as the thinly disguised heroine of Elizabeth L. Silver’s second novel, “The Majority.”

Framed as the unpublished memoirs of the late Sylvia Olin Bernstein, the first woman justice on the Supreme Court — Ginsburg was the second — the novel opens with lines that make clear who we should be picturing: “Half of the United States is waiting for me to die,” Sylvia declares. “The other half stands by, candles in hand, praying for me to hang on.” Like Ginsburg, Sylvia grew up in the “old Midwood section of Brooklyn,” lost her mother in adolescence, was upset at being denied a bat mitzvah at the local Conservative synagogue, enrolled in Harvard Law School as one of only nine women in a class of hundreds of men, married another law student who became a tax attorney, had a baby, faced discrimination as a law student, clerked for an appellate court judge, worked on landmark cases involving women’s rights while at the ACLU, was appointed to the Supreme Court, and came to be known by her initials, in her case SOB. Therein lies most of the plot.

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Most of the story, however, centers on the many ad hoc legal and moral arguments, often about women’s rights, that Sylvia engages in with people she knows, starting with a debate she has at 12 with her rabbi over how women are treated in Judaism. Arguments that can rise to operatic intensity, whether focused on the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or Sylvia’s defense of her own behavior.

Silver’s intention, it seems, is to show that even our most significant legal decisions have homely beginnings and that like politics, the law is personal. (Silver is also an attorney.) Yet curiously, we never see Sylvia argue a case in court — or even in a Harvard Law School classroom — though we do get a few pages of her Senate confirmation hearing. Instead, she engages in vigorous deliberations with her law school roommate, Linda, a Black woman who is treated even worse at Harvard than Sylvia; with her sometime-mentor, sometime-nemesis, Dean Macklowe; with Joe, her husband, and with Mariana, her cousin, a Holocaust survivor who is Sylvia’s sternest critic, aside from Sylvia’s rather relentless daughter, Aviva.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg stars in a children’s book

Everyone in her life, it seems, is opposing counsel. One of the novel’s strongest scenes takes place when Sylvia, still a law student, and Joe argue over who will take care of their new baby while the other forges ahead with a legal career. Though Sylvia is demonstrably more talented, and Joe wants her to succeed, ingrained gender roles back then were hard to break, even among progressive couples. “There was no way for me to work and him to stay with Aviva when he had just graduated from law school,” Sylvia acknowledges bitterly. “Even if I was able to graduate and work, he’d make ten times what I would and we both knew that.”

To complicate matters, Sylvia has given birth a week earlier than her due date, forcing her to miss her spring semester final exams and necessitating a nasty fight with Dean Macklowe over whether she has the right to be admitted back into Harvard as a third-year law student. Does she have an equal protection right to take the exams later, or would this be considered an unfair advantage? Other law students, after all, have taken their exams while sick or otherwise compromised. Is pregnancy a short-term disability, and if so, what is motherhood?

What is fair? A question raises, in one way or another, in nearly every scene in this novel. Silver is particularly persuasive when dramatizing what women faced when trying to maintain careers and families in the 1970s.

The many specific similarities between Sylvia and Ginsburg make it tricky, of course, to tell where Silver is inventing events and relationships, unless one checks Ginsburg’s Wikipedia page. As a result, some readers may believe they are getting an inside look at Ginsburg’s life, and won’t remember often enough that the insecure, brooding, self-castigating woman in this novel — repeatedly accused by friends and family members of being self-absorbed and emotionally absent — is a fictional character. A confusion encouraged by the novel’s jacket, which pictures a black robe with a fancy white jabot, Ginsburg’s signature judicial attire.

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The issue of confusion feels important. Is it fair to muddle fact and fiction when dealing with a figure whose memory is so recent, and whose relatives are very much alive? More complicated is the question of what we’re reading for when we read fictional representations of real people. Information we can’t get otherwise? (What was Ginsburg really like in law school?) Demystification? Perhaps all we truly crave is the illusion of spending intimate time with people who fascinated us, and whose energy, vision and originality we miss. While Sylvia may be no RBG, “The Majority” is a painful reminder of what we have lost.

Suzanne Berne’s most recent novel, “The Blue Window,” was published in January.

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