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 novel Lucky Us, the narrator's mother has dropped off twelve-year-old Eva "like a bag of dirty laundry," leaving the poor girl with her bossy half sister, Iris, a fledgling starlet even at sixteen, 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 ten-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 previous 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, twenty 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 fourteen, 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 fifteen-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, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.
Reviewer: Heller McAlpin
Read an Excerpt
I’d Know You Anywhere
My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.
She tapped my nose with her grapefruit spoon. “It’s like this,” she said. “Your father loves us more, but he’s got another family, a wife, and a girl a little older than you. Her family had all the money. Wipe your face.”
There was no one like my mother, for straight talk. She washed my neck and ears until they shone. We helped each other dress: her lilac dress, with the underarm zipper, my pink one with the tricky buttons. My mother did my braids so tight, my eyes pulled up. She took her violet cloche and her best gloves and she ran across the road to borrow Mr. Portman’s car. I was glad to be going and I thought I could get to be glad about having a sister. I wasn’t sorry my father’s other wife was dead.
We’d waited for him for weeks. My mother sat by the window in the morning and smoked through supper every night. When she came home from work at Hobson’s, she was in a bad mood, even after I rubbed her feet. I hung around the house all July, playing with Mr. Portman’s poodle, waiting for my father to drive up. When he came, he usually came by two o’clock, in case there was a Fireside Chat that day. We listened to all the Fireside Chats together. We loved President Roosevelt. On Sundays, when my father came, he brought a pack of Lucky Strikes for my mother and a Hershey bar for me. After supper, my mother sat in my father’s lap and I sat right on his slippers and if there was a Fireside Chat, my father did his FDR imitation. Good evening, friends, he said, and he stuck a straw in his mouth like a cigarette holder. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. He bowed to my mother and said, Eleanor, my dear, how ’bout a waltz? They danced to the radio for a while and then it was my bedtime. My mother put a few bobby pins in my hair for curls and my father carried me to bed, singing, “I wish I could shimmy like my sister Kate.” Then he tucked me in and shimmied out the door. Monday mornings, he was gone and I waited until Thursday, and sometimes, until next Sunday.
My mother parked the car and redid her lipstick. My father’s house was two stories of red stone and tall windows, with fringed lace curtains behind and wide brown steps stacked like boxes in front of the shining wood door. Your father does like to have things nice, while he’s away, she said. It sure is nice, I said. We ought to live here.
My mother smiled at me and ran her tongue over her teeth. Could be, she said—you never know. She’d already told me she was tired of Abingdon, where we’d been since I was born. It was no kind of real town and she was fed up to here hostessing at Hobson’s. We talked a lot about finding ourselves a better life in Chicago. Chicago, Chicago, that toddlin’ town . . . I saw a man, he danced with his wife. I sang as we got out of the car and I did a few dance steps like in the movies. My mother said, You are the bee’s knees, kiddo, and she grabbed the back of my dress. She licked her palm and pressed it to my bangs, so they wouldn’t fly up. She straightened her skirt and told me to check her seams. Straight as arrows, I said, and we went up the stairs hand in hand.
My mother knocked and my father answered the door in the blue vest he wore at our house during the president’s speeches. My father hugged me and my parents whispered to each other while I stood there, trying to see more of the parlor, which was as big as our whole apartment and filled with flowers. (Maybe my father said, What the hell are you doing here? Maybe my mother cursed him for staying away, but I doubt it. My father had played the gentleman his whole life and my mother must have said to me a hundred times that men needed to be handled right and a woman who couldn’t handle her man had only herself to blame. “When I say men are dogs,” she’d say, “I’m not being insulting. I like dogs.”) Behind my father, I saw a tall girl.
“My daughter Iris,” my father said. I could hear my mother breathe in.
“Iris,” he said, “this is my friend Mrs. Logan and her daughter, her lovely daughter, Eva.”
I knew, standing in their foyer, that this girl had a ton of things I didn’t have. Flowers in crystal vases the size of buckets. Pretty, light-brown curls. My father’s hand on her shoulder. She wore a baby-blue sweater and a white blouse with a bluebird pin on the collar. I think she wore stockings. Iris was sixteen and she looked like a grown woman to me. She looked like a movie star. My father pushed us to the stairs and told Iris to entertain me in her room while he and my mother had a chat.
“Picture this,” Iris said. She lay on her bed and I sat on the braided rug next to it. She gave me a couple of gumdrops and I was happy to sit there. She was a great talker and a perfect mimic. “The whole college came to my mother’s funeral. My grandfather used to be president of the college, but he had a stroke last year, so he’s different now. There was this one girl, red hair, really awful. Redheads. Like they didn’t cook long enough or something.”
“I think Paulette Goddard’s a redhead,” I said. I’d read this in Photoplay last week.
“How old are you, ten? Who the hell wants to be Paulette Goddard? Anyway, this redheaded girl comes back to our house. She’s just bawling to beat the band. So this lady, our neighbor, Mrs. Drysdale, says to her, ‘Were you very close to dear Mrs. Acton?’ ”
The way Iris said this, I could just see Mrs. Drysdale, sticking her nose in, keeping her spotted veil out of her mouth while she ate, her wet hankie stuffed into her big bosom, which my mother told me was a disgusting thing to do.
“I’m twelve,” I said.
Iris said, “My mother was like a saint—everybody says so. She was nice to everyone, but I don’t want people thinking my mother wasted her time on this stupid girl, so I turn around and say that none of us even know who she is and she runs into the powder room downstairs—this is the funny part—the door gets stuck, and she can’t get out. She’s banging on the door and two professors have to jimmy it open. It was funny.”
Iris told me that the whole college (I didn’t know my father taught at a college; if you had asked me, I would have said that he read books for a living) came to the chapel to grieve for her mother, to offer sympathy to her and her father. She said that all of their family friends were there, which was her way of telling me that my mother could not really be a friend of her father’s.
We heard the voices downstairs and then a door shutting and then the piano, playing “My Angel Put the Devil in Me.” I didn’t know my father played the piano. Iris and I stood at her bedroom door, leaning into the hall. We heard the toilet flush, which was embarrassing but reassuring and then my father started playing the “Moonlight Sonata” and then we heard a car’s engine. Iris and I ran downstairs. My mother’d left the front door open and just slipped into Mr. Portman’s car. She’d set a brown tweed suitcase on the front porch. I stood on the porch holding the suitcase, looking at the road. My father sat down in the rocker and pulled me onto his lap, which he’d stopped doing last year. He asked me if I thought my mother was coming back and I asked him, Do you think my mother is coming back? My father asked me if I had any other family on my mother’s side, and I lay my head on his shoulder. I’d seen my father most Sundays and some Thursdays since I was a baby, and the whole rest of my family was my mother. I was friendly with Mr. Portman and his poodle and all of my teachers had taken an interest in me, and that was the sum of what you could call my family.
Iris opened the screen door and looked at me the way a cat looks at a dog.
We sat down to meat loaf and mashed potatoes and the third time Iris told me to get my elbows off the table, this isn’t a boardinghouse, my father said, Behave yourself, Iris. She’s your sister. Iris left the room and my father told me to improve my manners. You’re not living in that dreadful town anymore and you’re not Eva Logan anymore, he said. You’re Eva Acton. We’ll say you’re my niece.
I was thirteen before I understood that my mother wasn’t coming back to get me.
Iris didn’t ignore me for very long. She bossed me. She talked to me like Claudette Colbert talked to Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life, when she said, “We’re in the same boat, Delilah,” which showed that the white lady had no idea what the hell she was talking about, and of course Louise Beavers just sighed and made more pancakes.
Iris helped me navigate junior high. (A big, red-faced girl cornered me after two weeks and said, Who are you, anyway? Iris dropped a manicured hand on the girl’s shoulder and said, Gussie, this is my cousin Eva Acton. Her mother has also passed away. And the girl said—and who can blame her—Jeez, what are you two, vampires? Don’t walk past my house, is all I’m saying.)
I helped Iris prepare for her contests: elocution, rhetoric, dramatic readings, poetry readings, patriotic essays, and dance. Iris was a star. She had a lot of admirers at school, and some girls who didn’t like her, and she didn’t care. I pretended I didn’t care either. I hung around the library and got A’s and my real job, as I saw it, was to help Iris with her contests.
Things were not as nice at the house as they were the day my mother dropped me off. We didn’t have fresh flowers anymore and everything was a little dusty. Iris and I cleaned our rooms and we were supposed to clean the parlor and the kitchen too, but we didn’t. No one did. My father opened cans of salmon or tuna fish and dumped them on our plates, on top of a lettuce leaf. Sometimes he boiled six hot dogs with a can of beans and put a jar of mustard on the table.
I found Charlotte Acton’s very clean copy of Joy of Cooking and I asked my father if I could use it. My father said that he wanted me to know that he and Iris would eat anything I deigned to make. Irma Rombauer said on the first page to begin by facing the stove. I put a bunch of parsley and a lemon in a chicken and put it in the oven for a couple of hours. We finished the chicken and my father thanked me.
On my thirteenth birthday, I made crepes, my father read “The Highwayman” aloud, and we had pineapple upside-down cake for dessert. Iris put the candles in and they both sang.
On New Year’s Eve, our father went out and Iris and I drank gin and orange juice out of her mother’s best cherry-blossom teacups.
“May the hinges of our friendship never grow rusty,” Iris said. “I got that from Brigid, the maid. Before your time.”
“Hear, hear,” I said, and we hooked elbows and choked down the gin.
One night in February, I woke up to Iris slapping me. It’s true that Iris was not the sister I might have dreamed of. (Not that I’d ever dreamed of a sister at all. I dreamed of having a poodle, like Mr. Portman’s, and for years I dreamed that my mother hired a private eye to find me and came crying to the doorstep of wherever I was living. I never let her in.) But Iris had never hit me before. I’d been in her house for more than a year and she’d never even set foot in my room. When Iris wanted to talk to me, she’d stand in the hallway and point and I’d go sit on her braided rug, next to her bed.
“You sneaky, thieving, filthy bitch.” Her opal ring, the one from her mother, snagged in my hair, and we were stuck together, both of us crying. She yanked me out of bed and across the floor, until she got her hand loose. She threw everything I had, which wasn’t much and most of it clothes she didn’t want anymore, onto the floor. Oh, Christ, she said. I know it wasn’t you. She lay down on the floor next to me, panting.
Iris said my father had stolen a hundred dollars she’d hidden under her mattress. He’d taken it all. It had happened one time before I’d come and then she moved her hiding place, but now he’d found it again. She had five bucks in her hand from tonight at the Pulaski Club, for one of her best speeches, “What Makes America Great?” and she was damned if Edgar was going to get it. She banged around my room, pulling all the books off my little bookshelf. She went into her room and came back with the big scissors we used to make some of her mother’s clothes into things she could wear for her recitations. She cut the middle out of my copy of Little Women, page by page, from “Genius burns!” until almost the end, when Amy marries Laurie, which I hated anyway.
This is my Hollywood and Vine money, she said. That’s my next stop. She put all of my books back nicely and she put my shoes and my clothes back in my closet. She brushed my hair. She folded up the cardigans that used to be hers, and my room and I looked better than usual.
It was amazing to me that Iris had made so much money from her contests. It was amazing to me that she thought it’d be smarter to keep her money in my room. I thought she was mistaken about my father stealing her money in the first place, but she wasn’t. Iris was just being Iris. I don’t think she was more observant or more intuitive than I was. I saw plenty, but I never knew what to make of it. Iris saw only what mattered to Iris, but she really paid attention, like a pilot watching for the flashing lights of the landing strip below. Her attention was the only thing that stood between her and a terrible crash. Iris said I was more like someone with a crazy radio inside of me, and half the time the radio said things worth knowing and half the time it said things like, “Crops fail in Mississippi.” Every time Iris won, from Valentine’s Day to Memorial Day, she folded the money into her bra. My father waited up for her and every time, he’d ask her if she’d like him to hold on to her winnings. She always said, No, thanks, and went straight to her room, to throw him off. She was very polite about it.
The day after graduation (me from eleventh grade, with the prize in English literature and social studies, Iris from high school with a standing ovation and our father reciting “Gunga Din” at both places) Iris gave her speech about “The Fallen” for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. It brought down the house. Really, Iris said, I was great. And I was improvising. I said that she was better than great, that she was as good as Judy Garland, but prettier. Iris said that Judy Garland could cry at the drop of a hot dog and that she knew she had to work on that herself.
Iris did the Rotary and the Exchange Clubs and the American Association of University Women get-togethers from Windsor to Cincinnati, all summer long. She entered every contest within fifty miles, even if she had to hitch a ride and carry her dress clothes and shoes in a sack. She won them all. Sometimes, when Iris walked into the auditorium, you could hear the other girls sigh. She won a fifty-dollar bond from the Midwestern Carpenters Union for best speech by a boy or girl and she trounced the Italian girls with “Musetta’s Waltz” at Casa Italia in Galesburg, where she also won in a walk for “Why I Am Proud to Be an American” at Temple Beth Israel, reciting as Iris Katz. The two of us did pretty well in the corn-shucking contests at the fairground. The corn wagons each held about twenty-five bushels and Iris and I did about sixty pounds together. We came in first in the Youth Group, Girls and we came in second for Youth Group, Seniors, right behind two boys who looked like they’d done nothing but shuck corn their whole lives. We pulled the silk off each other and had root-beer floats. The ten dollars went right into Little Women. Sometimes I opened the book just to look at Iris’s money. At night, I sewed the sequins back on the outfit that was resting, or I basted the pleats on the sailor skirt or I put ribbon on her worn-out cuffs and waited for her to come home. The sequins came loose after every performance and my bed was always covered in them.
It was the day before Labor Day and hot and there were no contests anywhere and no party to get ready for. Iris and I walked down to Paradise Lake, the big pond at the edge of Windsor College. I dragged my feet to make dust devils. Iris took off her shoes and socks and put her feet in the water. She lit a cigarette and I lay down next to her. Iris took two beers out of her bag and I took out last week’s Screen magazine.
“There’s your heartthrob, Paulette Goddard,” she said. “I can do what she does.”
I thought Iris probably could. I kept watch for my father while Iris smoked, her eyes closed.
“Let’s get wet,” Iris said, and I ran back to my room to look for my bathing suit. My father was on his knees in my closet, one hand on my black party shoe.
“I thought you girls were down at the pond.”
“I have to change,” I said. “Iris’s already down there. She brought her suit with her.”
“Your sister plans ahead,” he said. “You are more hey-nonny-nonny.”
He tucked my shoe back into the closet and stood up, smiling a little absently, the way he did at breakfast, when I was talking while he was reading.
When I told Iris she said, “That sonofabitch. You have to do what I tell you.”
I said I would, whatever it was.