Book review

The women of Amy Bloom's 'Lucky Us' improvise in dark times

Amy Bloom is a sublime weaver of intricate and sober stories that surprise us with flashes of hilarity

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There is traditionally a particular appeal in the insightful, glasses-wearing literary narrator who is clearly smarter than most of those around her, and who provides a relatable point of entry into a chaotic universe.

By Amy Bloom
Random House ($26).

In “Lucky Us,” Amy Bloom, a sublime weaver of intricate and sober stories that surprise us with flashes of hilarity, gives us Eva, whom we meet at age 12 when she is unceremoniously dropped off with one dented suitcase to live at her father’s house. In that moment of abandonment by her mother, she meets Iris, her half sister four years her senior, and Eva’s role is set: “I hung around the library and got A’s and my real job, as I saw it, was to help Iris with her contests.”

Gorgeous, mercurial Iris wins enough prize money to allow the girls to run away from Ohio and their “blithe, inscrutable, crooked father” to Los Angeles so that Iris can become a star, the beginning of an odyssey shaped by cultural events of the 1940s.

The sisters learn quickly how fickle the Hollywood system can be, especially in its hypocrisy related to homophobia, and after a degrading incident, the sisters cross the country once again to New York, this time with Francisco, an amiable, fatherly makeup artist, the first in a series of unique characters who ultimately become the most authentic sort of family to Eva, one created through obligation and choice, gravitas and passion.

Through a series of (lucky?) connections, Iris manages to become a governess for the children of a wealthy Italian family, a position for which she is unqualified but for her studying up on Blue Books, miniature treasure troves of the era, each one devoted to a specific subject.

The sisters reconcile with their father, who ironically becomes the household butler, and he in turn courts Clara, a beautiful black jazz singer whose vitiligo -- a skin condition that she tends to with makeup, so that she can appear as either black or white depending on her ministrations -- serves as a literal embodiment of the racial conflicts of the time.

Iris’s love for the cook, Reenie, precipitates events that lead to an accident that will separate the sisters and ultimately propel Eva from her subordinating self, “the little brown jug of worry” to Iris’s “vase of glamour.”

Author of the excellent debut short story collection “Come to Me” and the bestselling novel “Away,” and a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Ms. Bloom shows in “Lucky Us,” her seventh book, an ability to create sweeping plot-lines with multiple settings while maintaining a succession of quirky and intimately rendered details.

Most notably, Ms. Bloom gives us a meditation on what it means to be Jewish or to be close to Jews during the years of mass slaughter in Germany. Just in the way Clara is externally both black and not-black, depending on how she chooses to present herself — and Iris is overtly a lesbian or not, depending on her environment — various characters live in differing permutations of Jewish identity.

One (non-Jewish) man significant to Eva is falsely accused of being a Nazi sympathizer, is sent to a South Dakota internment camp, deported overseas to Germany, raises a family in a war-torn, anti-Semitic region and ultimately returns to America with a new name, converting in spirit to Judaism.

Recognition that on some level Eva’s childhood banishment echoes for her the harrowing Kindertransports is an example of how the large story and the quiet gesture combine to create heartbreaking narrative: “I dreamed about little Jewish children crushed into trains, with their little bags and teddy bears, their weeping, hopeful parents on the platform, tying little notes to their coat buttons. ...Your parents are on their knees with grief as you grow smaller and smaller, on your way to a better life. Oh, you lucky little bastards, I used to think.” This last because, Eva knows, after her casual abandonment, her own mother did not mourn for her at all.

And thus, manifested throughout the novel, is the play on the concept of lucky, on its kaleidoscopic definition depending on circumstances. Eva’s independence truly begins with a side job she sets up for herself in Francisco’s sisters’ beauty shop; she reads Tarot cards to a clientele desperate for good news. And Eva gives them just that — only improvising hopeful, lucky predictions — as she herself blossoms from one whose “ of the future was like the paintings I’d seen of the Old West, mysterious, serious, with great beauty at every vista and terrible things happening whenever any people appeared” to one who believes in the resurrection of love, the recombination of family, and the relativity and malleability of luck.

Lisa Jennifer Selzman is a writer living in Wexford.

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