A scintillating story of sisterly sadness
AMY BLOOM’S latest novel is the literary equivalent of sunlight on water — all dazzle and surprise. The surface story, set i n 1940s America — of two young Jewish half-sisters thrown together by one mother’s death and the other’s defection — grabs you straight by the heart.
Bloom’s title is gloriously ironic, for although Iris and Eva find themselves a fortunate world away from the unfolding horrors of Europe, they struggle to survive their own crushed dreams and cruel tribulations.
Abundance of hope first despatches them to Hollywood, where Iris seems sure to make their fortunes. Endowed with movie-star glamour, a studio contract and Harpo Marx’s gift of a pale silk nightie, Iris is nonetheless ruined in an instant by her innocence in love.
Little sister Eva is bookish and seriously smart — earning pin money by sweeping up hair in the Cut’n’Curl, she invents her own happier ending to Little Women and learns this key lesson from her beauty-salon client: “God doesn’t give with both hands, honey.”
No, indeed. For the almost-lucky pair things too often fall apart “like shuffled cards”. From their ganef of a father (he steals their money and masquerades as a butler to put a roof over their heads) the girls inherit just enough connivance to get by. But their street cunning is offset by a tender compassion, which is how Iris comes to be appointed the mascot for badly burned British pilots and Eva, scarcely more than a child herself, singlehand- edly raises a small boy liberated from a Jewish orphanage.
Not that the girls are ever truly alone through the catastrophes of conflagration, loss of mind, hidden children, racial betrayal and doomed love that beset them like softer, bomb-free echoes of theShoah.Thefamilyof quirkyfriends that gathers to sustain the sisters lives on in the reader’s head, long after the last page — Clara, the black chanteuse with the skin condition, vitiligo; the fairytale new-moneyed Italian Torellis with their sleek limos and million-dollar crib; and great-hearted Gus, the self-styled “fat, gimpy mechanic with a German last name” who is interned without just cause in North Dakota.
Lucky Us sings and sighs in equally exquisite measure, and surely sets Amy Bloom even higher in the firmament of first-rate fiction. If you read only one book this month, make it this.
Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer
Amy Bloom: dazzle and surprise