I categorize all names I hear as better or worse than mine. I’d say ninety-five percent fall into the better camp but once in while, I come across a name that I actually think is worse. When this happens, I feel an enormous amount of pity and tenderness, not only for the name itself, but also for its hapless owner. I know all too well what it’s like to go through with an odd and ungainly name. When I was new to fourth grade, my teacher looked at the class list and said, “What is Yona Zeldis?” I had to raise my hand and say, “It’s me.” She thought it was a misprint and that it should perhaps have been Zelda Yonis; no such luck though. I was born in Israel, where Yona is not an unusual name. But I was raised in the United States, where it bordered on the freakish. Combined with the Z in the uncommon Zeldis, it was altogether a challenge and a conundrum—people just did not get it. They still don’t but I have added McDonough (my husband’s name) and made my grudging peace with it.
Because of my heightened name sensitivity, I am almost obsessive about the naming of anyone else in my life: children, dogs and of course my fictional characters. I love the process and devote a lot of time to selecting their names. The names are not always ones I like; that would be too easy. No, the names have to fit the character—his or her gender, religion, nationality and class. (Names imply so much about a character; we perceive Katherine Anne Worthington as distinct and different from Sadie Mossbacher without another line of description about either.) And the names have to speak to me in some ineffable way—each new name is like a poem to my ears and I have become highly attuned to the music that a name can convey.
A dear friend had an uncle named Oscar Kornblatt; I found this one of the few names that was worse than mine. The first syallable,“Korn,” suggested not the yellow ears but the affliction of the toes, and second, “blatt,” had the misfortune to rhyme with splat. And the combination of the two induced shudders. But this name was paradoxically dear to me because of its very awfulness and I gave it to character I loved in my first novel, THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS.
I chose the names in my new novel, TWO OF A KIND, with the same kind of attention. The male protagonist, Andrew Stern, had the sort of Jewish boy name I was familiar with from my own childhood. Andy is a high-risk OB/GYN and he’s a smart, driven and though essentially decent man, at moments he can be overbearing and obnoxious. I felt I knew his type well and I found a name that put me in mind of it. For the woman he meets, the name had to be Christina. He’s Jewish and she’s not; this religious difference is one of the issues they must overcome to build a life together. Christina was about as clear and emphatic as I could get—can’t miss the reference to Christ in there, now can you? Her last name, Connelly, is Irish because she comes from the kind of working class Irish family that used to make up the backbone of Park Slope, where she’s lived all her life. Her daughter Jordan and Andy’s son Oliver have names that are reflective of their generation; I knew of no one, other than characters in books or in movies, who had such names when I was growing up, whereas my teen-aged daughter and twenty-something son have friends and acquaintances with these names. Andy’s mother, Ida, got her name from my great-aunt; I wanted a name that suggested her European Jewish roots and felt that was the one.
The naming of these characters and others has given me such satisfaction and delight as a writer. There is something so grand, and even Biblical in the process; isn’t naming one of the jobs that Adam is given? Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. So Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field.
I’m sure that when he was done, Adam was proud.