How’s this for a catchy opening: “My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.”
Within the first few pages of Amy Bloom’s terrifically satisfying new novel, Lucky Us, the narrator’s mother has dropped off 12-year-old Eva “like a bag of dirty laundry,” leaving the poor girl with her bossy half sister, Iris, a fledgling starlet even at 16, and their unreliable father, Edgar Acton, a man “with fancy manners and nothing else” who has modeled himself on John Barrymore.
Eva’s maternal abandonment unleashes the 10-year quest for love at the heart of Bloom’s book. “I looked for mothers the way drunks look for bars,” Eva comments with typical clear-sightedness. “Big ones, little ones, Italian ones, Negro ones. All I wanted was some soft, firm shoulder to lean against, a capable hand setting me right and making me breakfast.”
Like her last novel, "Away," Bloom’s new book is an entertaining, moving, quasi-historical escapade featuring a plucky girl who graduates from the school of hard knocks, where she learns to forge her own luck. Set during World War II, 20 years after Away, Bloom’s latest testament to the importance of even the most unconventional, cobbled-together, makeshift sort of family is populated with what we’ve come to expect from her — a motley assortment of vibrant characters, mainly outcasts and displaced persons who roll with punch after punch after punch. These are people who repeatedly reinvent themselves and – here’s the good luck — miraculously find each other.
Bloom, who was a psychoanalyst before she became a writer, brings an uncommon sympathy and understanding to all her characters. Although her cast encompasses blacks, whites, straights, gays, lesbians, Mexicans, Germans, Jews, Catholics, Italians, and more, it never feels like she’s ticking off a politically correct multicultural checklist. Her writing is exuberant, bristling with an ironic sensibility and wry humor. It’s sassy, heartfelt, and pugnacious. When Edgar’s caring lover, a black jazz singer named Clara, tells Eva, “Your father says you’re the smart one,” she’s hurt that she isn’t regarded as “the pretty one.” Clara, who assiduously applies makeup every day to cover her blotchy skin, reassures her breezily, “Oh, you can fake pretty.”
Among other things, "Lucky Us" is a book about the up-and-down, push-and-pull relationship between two sisters — a subject ripe for book group discussion. Eva and Iris, who don’t meet until adolescence, bond over their disappointing father, “a beaker of etiquette and big ideas,” whom Eva ultimately comes to see as “clever and shallow. Thin silverplate over nickel.” But they are as different as their two mothers. Iris, “a vase of glamour,” wants what she wants at any price, be it stardom or her latest heartthrob: and to hell with the collateral damage. Eva loves books and FDR, and although she’s not above grumbling about her lot in life — being pulled out of school at 14, being stuck taking care of her sick father and an orphaned boy — she does what’s right. She is the family’s designated coper, “the little brown jug of worry.”
The sisters’ odyssey takes them from Windsor, Ohio, to Hollywood, California, where Iris’s career at MGM is nipped in the bud when she’s caught kissing another actress. A gay Mexican makeup artist named Francisco Diego comes to their rescue — not for the last time. When Edgar, too, shows up, Iris comments resignedly, “Never a dull.” With Francisco’s help, Edgar and Iris secure jobs as butler and governess for a nouveau riche Italian family in Great Neck, Long Island. Where other writers might have mocked the Torellis’ parvenu pretensions, Bloom has Eva paint them as an enviable “fairy-tale family” of kind, good people ill at ease with their new social status.
Not all of Bloom’s characters are so decent. As Eva notes, a Hollywood star who blackballs Iris “made my mother look good.” In the name of passion and ambition, Iris does some appalling things, one of which lands a sweet garage mechanic of German descent in an internment camp for enemy aliens in North Dakota, from which he’s deported to Germany in 1944 in a POW exchange. Gus Heitmann, a “man’s man” who “looked like he could carry you out of a burning building and ... like the kind of man who would go back to get your poodle,” writes letters to Eva describing his ordeal. In one of them, he compares Americans’ passive response to the incarceration of Japanese and German Americans to Germans’ passive response to Nazis rounding up Jews. “We’re better than they are, I hear, because we’re not exterminating a whole people. Future generations will admire our restraint,” he comments sarcastically.
Gus also urges teenage Eva to go to college and not throw away her life reading Tarot cards for a living. He offers other advice that book groups may want to chew over. File this one under What to Look For in a Husband: “You want the guy who’ll get your medicine in the middle of the night, even in a blizzard, even after twenty years. You want the guy who shows you every day, shoveling the walk, carrying your groceries, shows you how much he loves you,” he says. When he adds, “It’s not about talking the talk, Eva,” she comments wryly, “You must have met my father.”
As a skinny, bespectacled 15-year-old newly arrived in New York, Eva identifies with the children she sees playing in a Jewish orphanage: “These were my people: the abandoned, the unloved, the phenomenally unlucky,” she comments. In a convoluted series of events that I’ll leave to the reader to discover, one of the children becomes her charge. The relationship forged between unhappy Eva and this bereft boy is one of the novel’s most moving narrative strands. As always, Bloom manages to convey emotion without succumbing to mush: “He never said that of all the people to wind up with, I was undoubtedly the least equipped, and, overall, the worst,” Eva writes. Then she adds this kicker: “I thought it was too bad that he had to be so tactful, so young.”
Eva’s utterly reliable first-person narrative, which spans the decade from 1939-49, is interrupted periodically by letters from her self-indulgent sister, which are the weakest part of the novel. Iris writes from London, presenting her own, often redundant version of events and pleading for Eva’s forgiveness for transgressions that are gradually revealed to us. While this counterpoint makes sense in the end, it is Eva’s chapters that enthrall. As an added bonus, each is headed by a famous song title from the period that captures the zeitgeist of the era. These include “Pennies from Heaven,” “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and “How High the Moon” and may have you humming along with Bloom’s jaunty plot. The relationship between these titles and specific narrative developments could provide a fruitful line of inquiry for book group discussions.
Luck – good and bad – is a recurrent theme. At one point, brainy Eva cites a Yiddish expression: “It’s good to be smart, it’s better to be lucky.” Yet she also notes, “My father quoted everyone, from Shakespeare to Emerson, on the subject of destiny, and then he’d point out that except for the Greeks, everyone agreed: The stars do fuck-all for us; you must make your own way.”
Bloom delivers a similar message – “You make your own luck” – in "Away," an excellent companion volume to this novel. Her most recent story collection, "Where the God of Love Hangs Out," also features unlikely couples and unconventional families. In addition, readers may want to check out Grace Paley’s stories, including "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute," with which Bloom shares a bracing, sharp, serio-comic, immigrant-inflected sensibility.
All of these books feature plucky characters who certainly know how to make their own luck. But talk about good fortune: For their charmed readers, great stories like these are a form of bounty. Lucky us.
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.