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When caring isn’t enough

Book by local author shows a teen's 'inner strength'

It’s not easy being a teenager.

But for young adults who hail from one country and spend their teenage years in another, the challenges can be especially daunting. Margie Gelbwasser’s new novel “Inconvenient” (Flux, 2010) tracks the lives of several such teens.

A Fair Lawn resident born in Belarus, Gelbwasser arrived in the Unied States in 1979, when she was 3, and moved to Bergen County in 1984. The story she writes takes place in Glenfair – a not-too-veiled composite of Glen Rock and Fair Lawn.

Now 34, Gelbwasser remembers her own days at Fair Lawn High School and draws from some of her own experiences in telling the story of 15-year-old Alyssa Bondar and her high school friends.

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Margie Gelbwasser Sam Peltz

“Regardless of what you write about, you put something you know into the book,” said Gelbwasser. “Even J.K. Rowling [writer of the ‘Harry Potter’ series] includes elements of people she knew. I don’t see how you can avoid it.”

The book’s title, said Gelbwasser, reflects several themes explored in the book: a parent’s growing addiction to alcohol and the desire by some foreign-born teens to leave their heritage, and former friends, behind.

“It can apply to many things,” said the author, a former teacher, recalling that life was not always easy as a student.

While the cold war is now a memory, said Gelbwasser, fellow students influenced by the popular perception of the Soviet Union “didn’t think I was Jewish like everyone else. And with the recent Russian spy situation, we’re back where we were.”

“Inconvenient,” her first book, began life as a part of a larger story “with a lot of problems,” she said, noting that the first time around, “I was not sure how to develop the characters.”

While the book explores issues relevant to teens, it also traces a complicated mother-daughter relationship and “has an additional layer,” said the author – one girl’s strength and how she copes with adversity.

While she resembles her heroine in some ways, “she’s stronger than I was then,” said the author. “I didn’t like to be different.” Alyssa, however, “has an inner strength. The girls I meet today seem so much more mature than I was.”

Gelbwasser believes that her family was one of the first Russian Jewish families to come to Fair Lawn, moving there from Brooklyn.

“Once some families settled here, others were attracted as well,” she said.

The author said that assimilating into the native culture is not always easy for foreign-born youngsters.

“Some [kids] are just happy with a group of Russian friends and don’t want to assimilate at all, while others are like Lana,” a character in her book who clearly wants to be accepted by native-born American students.

In writing the book, in which a young woman is forced to deal with an alcoholic family member, “I researched what I didn’t know,” said Gelbwasser, who attended Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon meetings to learn more about the topic.

“My parents were not alcoholic but some friends’ parents were,” she said. While the social drinking she describes in the book “is based on fact, there’s still a stigma,” she added, suggesting that Jews often believe they’re immune from alcoholism.

In writing the book, “I started out just telling a story,” said Gelbwasser. She came to realize, however, that the book might “help someone experiencing this problem in their family to realize that they’re not alone, that they can go for help.”

Gelbwasser will conduct a writing workshop on Dec. 11 at Barnes and Nobles in Nanuet. In January, she will sign copies of her book at the Acorn bookstore in Tenafly.

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