IN A NUTSHELL A HOLIDAY WEEKEND TWO-FER
- As Close to Us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner (Lee Boudreaux Books, 2016)
- In 40 words or less: Three sisters and their families traverse personal and societal minefields in post-WWII Connecticut. The family beach cottage holds their happiest memories but is also the site of a life-changing tragedy.
- Genre: Fiction
- Locale: Connecticut
- Time: 1948 – 2000, with flashbacks
- Read this for a complex family story that brings in the complexities of a changing society.
- The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman (St. Martin’s Press, 2016)
- In 40 words or less: The business and personal lives of two very different brothers and their families are intricately woven together. Loigman’s family drama lays out the corrosive nature of family secrets and the price to be paid by all.
- Genre: Fiction
- Locale: New York
- Time: 1947 – 1970
- Read this for a family story that reinforces the old adage “be careful what you wish for!”
Elizabeth Poliner’s and Lynda Cohen Loigman’s novels feature families that are close emotionally, physically and economically. Both books have as the historical setting the years following World War II. It’s no coincidence. It was a period of great transition with those family-owned businesses that survived the Depression and the war flourishing. Ethnic and religious prejudices are lessening a bit, although there remains the expectation that people will ultimately “stay with their own kind.” With new prosperity, families are leaving apartments in the city for new homes in the suburbs.
In As Close to Us as Breathing, three sisters spend their summer in their family cottage in a small shoreline Jewish enclave nicknamed Bagel Beach, as they did during their own childhoods. The telling of the story is shared by 12-year-old Molly, the middle child of the eldest sister, Ada, and an omniscient narrator. The novel begins with the announcement that Davy, Molly’s 8-year-old brother, will die that summer in an accident.
During the work week, the three sisters – Ada, Vivie and Bec- share close quarters with Ada’s three children – 18-year-old Howard, Molly and Davy – and Vivie’s daughter Nina. Friday afternoon Howard, Ada’s husband, and Vivie’s husband Leo, would drive out to spend the Sabbath with their families. Howard’s brother, Nelson, was left in Middletown to mind Leibritsky’s Department Store, the business built by the sisters’ parents. Each person plays a distinctive role within the family.
As within every family, there are grudges held and sacrifices made. Poliner shares their secrets carefully, only to further the story. In ways small and large, characters chafe against societal expectations. The importance of respect within the family is seen in how these choices are hidden from those closest to them.
As Close to Us as Breathing is a wonderful period piece and family novel. Poliner takes extraordinary care to describe the details that paint the picture of their lives. While accidents like the one that claims Davy’s life are fortunately rare, the complex relationships that affect the family’s reactions ring true. Key to the success of the storytelling is the pacing which naturally follows the story itself. This novel has an excellent balance between character and plot and is worthy of inclusion in your summer reading.
While the catalyzing incident in Poliner’s book occurs in the summer, a winter storm sets into motion all that follows in Lynda Cohen Loigman’s The Two-Family House. Abe and Mort are brothers who own a cardboard box company in New York. Together they also own a two-family brownstone where Abe lives upstairs with his wife Helen and their four sons. Downstairs are Mort, his wife Rose, and their three daughters. While the brothers couldn’t be more different in temperament, Rose and Helen are the glue that keeps everything going.
As Helen and Abe celebrate their eldest son becoming bar mitzvah, Helen sees her sons needing less and less of her and wishes she had a daughter with whom to share experiences. At the same time, it is clear Mort regrets not having a son to become bar mitzvah and does not really understand daughters. When both Rose and Helen find themselves pregnant once again, they hope that the missing piece for each family will be found.
Several weeks before the babies are due, both Mort and Abe must go to Philadelphia overnight for a business meeting that may determine the future of their company. A blizzard blows in and both women go into labor. Fortunately, a midwife is nearby and can attend to the births. When the men return, each is surprised and delighted to meet their children – a daughter for Abe, a son for Mort. From that day forward both family’s lives are changed forever.
At what should be a time of great joy, tensions within and between the families grow. Judith, Mort and Rose’s eldest daughter, seems to bear the brunt of it. Judith is a wonderful writer, acknowledged by awards from school, but her father dismisses her accomplishments and creates barriers for her. As her mother also becomes more distant, she seeks out her aunt for advice and comfort, further increasing the mother-daughter rift.
From the beginning, Natalie and Teddy, the babies, were raised together. As they grew, they insisted upon it, even having dinners in each others’ homes on a regular schedule. And the curiosity and innocence of the young uncovered long-held secrets. As a duo, they managed to soften the hard edges that their parents’ had developed.
As the years pass, the family business thrives though the family relationships are not as lucky. Eventually, both families leave the brownstone for the suburbs, lessening the day-to-day tensions between Helen and Rose but at the cost of increased isolation for all. A horrific accident further fractures the family rather than drawing it together. Bit by bit, some of the secrets are revealed.
People are fascinated by the possibility of children being switched at birth. Loigman has used this fascination to good effect by including the reader in from the very beginning. The characters make choices in revealing some of the secrets. In doing so it is emphasized that there can be healing or hurt in the telling.
Unlike in Poliner’s novel, only a limited number of the characters are fully drawn. Loigman’s focus hones in on the effect of the secrets on each. What we see in The Two-Family House are two families entwined by business loyalty, nurtured through marriages, and almost destroyed for not leaving well enough alone. Loigman seems to hold a soft spot in her heart even for some of her more imperfect characters. Choosing to end the novel decades after its start allows time and societal change to bring about some healing that the relationships between family members couldn’t.