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by Amy Bloom
When Eva’s mother learns that the wife of Eva’s father has died, she decides to visit and see “what might be in it for us”. They drive down and Eva is introduced to her half-sister Iris. While the two girls are chatting, Eva’s mother slips away, leaving behind nothing but her daughter and a small suitcase. For a time, Eva lives with her father and sister, but when Iris decides to run away to Hollywood Eva goes with her. There, Iris begins her ascendancy as a starlet, only to have her dream dashed to pieces when scandal erupts. Joined by their father, the two girls cross the country once more and land in New York City, hoping for a fresh start for their little family.
The book unfolds in a meandering stream where time jumps freely and epistolary chapters drift through. Many of the letters are unacknowledged or never make it to the recipient, so the reader always knows more than Eva, the narrator. The unusual approach to narrative sometimes results in confused and muddled passages.
There’s a lot of unpleasantness in the novel. Perhaps that can only be expected in a novel that opens with a death and an opportunistic woman who abandons her child and then disappears. A father steals his children’s hard-earned money. One sister falls in love and sends an anonymous letter declaiming as a spy the husband of the woman she wants. He’s shipped away to a prison camp and the wife falls into her arms. The other sister helps steal a child from an orphanage so that her sister’s lover can have the baby she always wanted. When tragedy strikes, punishing those who hurt others in earlier chapters, it isn’t cathartic or satisfying. It’s just one more bad thing on the pile.
I believe the bad events leave so little impact because the characters are quite flat. If I had to describe a character in the story – virtually any character – the first word that comes to mind is “selfish”. After that…nothing. Oh, I might come up with another word or two. Iris is selfish, lusty and ambitious. Edgar, the father, is selfish, charming, and deceptive. Eva is selfish and nurturing. It’s like the author was so busy cramming the plot full of events both major and minor that she just ran out of steam when it came to developing the people experiencing them.
There are two lesbian love scenes in the first fifty pages, which were a bit surprising and not my cup of tea, but fine. It’s the sex at the end of the novel that I found rather icky, when -
- when the husband of Iris’ lover returns after year in exile overseas. When she was about thirteen, Eva played cards with him while her sister made love to his wife in the next room. Now, even though the man must be at least three times Eva’s age, they almost immediately start sleeping together. It’s weird. I just can’t shake the shades of pedophilia – was the husband lusting over the girl all those years before as they played cards? Eeew. Or did he just build up a fantasy about this girl – still a kid! – during his long absence? Still eew.
I’ve heard lots of praise for Amy Bloom’s short stories, and there are flashes of brilliance in the turn of a phrase or the painting of a scene. But all of these interesting elements never quite gel into a fully integrated novel.
2 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: 1776 by David McCullough
2012: The Girl in the Glass by Susan Meissner
2011: Bedbugs by Ben H. Winters
2010: Photos: 20 Brilliant Bookshelves
2009: The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel by Maureen Lindley
2008: BBAW: Kiva.org Giveaway