Radiant Daughter

Overview

In Radiant Daughter, award-winning novelist Patricia Grossman follows

a Czech-American family for twenty-seven years, beginning in suburban

Chicago in 1969 and ending in Brooklyn, in seaside “Little Odessa,”

in 1996. Though the novel begins as a traditional assimilation ...

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Overview

In Radiant Daughter, award-winning novelist Patricia Grossman follows

a Czech-American family for twenty-seven years, beginning in suburban

Chicago in 1969 and ending in Brooklyn, in seaside “Little Odessa,”

in 1996. Though the novel begins as a traditional assimilation story—

immigrant parents, “native” children, and the conflicts one might expect—

it evolves into a highly particular and harrowing tale surrounding

the descent of Elise Blazek, the family’s brightest star. Radiant Daughter

is also a story of translation—between generations, from the Czech of

Irena and Stepan, to the “American” of the children, and finally to the

Russian that is Elise’s academic specialty.

Radiant Daughter explores all that is human, from the most self-

destructive behavior to the highest forms of commitment and self-

sacrifice. Even at her lowest moments, Irena never loses her fierce

love for the daughter who has traveled so utterly beyond her reach.

For Elise, the future will always be complicated: a precarious balance

between periods of insight, bursts of accomplishment, and the abyss

of her illness.

Reminiscent, on the one hand, of the meticulously constructed

mother-daughter dynamic in Carol Shields’s Unless and, on the other,

of the anarchic real-life experience of Big and Little Edie Beale in Grey

Gardens, Grossman’s moving narrative breaks new ground in exploring

a dangerous turn in the complex bond between a mother and her adult

child.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Grossman (Brian in Three Seasons) pursues the erratic coming-of-age of the gifted daughter of a family of second-generation Czech immigrants living outside of Chicago. In 1969, 18-year-old Elise Blazek, scholarly and haughty, gets both accepted into Princeton and apprehended for vandalism, revealing a contradictory, troubled nature that confounds her pushy, ambitious mother, Irena. Elise can't wait to get out of her stifling suburban home where she also endures the distracted diffidence of her father, Stepan, a mild-mannered architecture draftsman, and younger cousin, Miloslav, a crack baseball pitcher dealing with his own tragedy. Over the course of 27 years, the novel traces Elise's gradual spiraling into mental illness and Irena's fixed denial: from Elise's decision to study Russian literature, grating her mother's hereditary resentment; her abrupt and unceremonious marriage to her Russian language graduate professor; diagnosis of manic depression manifested by episodes of hearing the voice of poet Anna Akhmatova; to dismissal from her university. Ultimately, Irena rallies around her daughter with a fierce maternal sympathy, offering a fragile closure to this unsentimental story of one family's gossamer dreams. (Aug.)
USA Today

Patricia Grossman has written a beautiful story of how families love —and forgive.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810151994
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 8/31/2010
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Patricia Grossman is the author of five previous novels. Brian in Three Seasons

(2005) won the 2006 Ferro-Grumley Award. Grossman lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Radiant Daughter

a novel
By Patricia Grossman

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2010 Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-5199-4


Chapter One

June 1969

No one in Irena Blazek's family wanted to hear about 1938. She knew this but occasionally indulged herself anyway. "Right before we came over in 1938, just as we were locking up the house for the last time-"

"The minute you say the date, don't you think I know what's coming?" her daughter Elise interrupted. She was sitting at the kitchen table, examining her skin in a hand mirror while across from her Irena peeled and sliced potatoes.

All Irena knew was that after so many years, naming the date was the only way she had to recognize her passage from an inevitably harsh fate-her joints would have ached before their time, she'd been told-to a promising future in the United States.

Elise put down the mirror. "You sound like a broken record, Irena," she complained. "And it's such a cliché-'only the clothes on our backs.'"

Irena ignored this. "Your grandfather Václav-he might have been a laborer, but he was a smart man, a forward-thinking man. If you got your brains from anyone, it was from him. He didn't believe a word of the Munich Agreement. The Munich Betrayal, he called it. 'You think they care about promises?' he said. 'You think it makes a difference that we're Catholic? In the end Hitler will conquer everyone not born Christian in the Fatherland.'"

"So you've said," Elise remarked, now dabbing her chin with makeup from a little plastic disc Irena had never seen.

"My problem is I don't remember enough," Irena continued. "I had already turned fourteen by 1938. You'd think I'd remember everything. Can you imagine barely remembering your first fourteen years?"

Irena was sure she saw a smile flicker across her daughter's face. "Don't be fresh," she said. "And don't call your mother 'Irena.' It's not respectful. I called my mother maminka till the day she died."

"It's not disrespectful," claimed Elise. "It just means I've reached a particular age."

"What age? Eighteen is not so much of an age anymore. I've noticed this. Every year you teenagers get younger. When my father was eighteen in Plzen, he was already married and working at Pilsner Urquell. He already had a sore back from moving barrels through the tunnels of the lagering cellar. You may know a lot up here," Irena said, tapping her right temple, "but believe me, you are not 'a particular age.'"

Elise lit a cigarette, then exhaled a tapered stream of smoke in that gallingly "cool" way she had. Her little cousin Miloslav entered the room, but Elise didn't bother turning his way. He pulled back an empty chair and straddled it. He was sweating and grimy from exhausting himself with the boys in the street, the rough ones who carried their hockey sticks as if they were rifles.

Irena gave her nephew a sidewise look, then laid down her peeler. "Come here, Miloslav, come to Aunt Irena." When he came over, she pulled him closer, locked him between her knees, and wiped his broad and sweaty face with the handkerchief she generally kept in the pocket of her roomy cardigans. "Go wash. Get ready for dinner."

Glad to wriggle free, Miloslav ran to the bathroom.

"Poor boy," said Irena.

"He'd be better off if you didn't keep saying that," Elise said. "You and Daddy are taking good care of him."

Irena refrained from asking why she was "Irena" and Stepan was "Daddy." "It'll never be the way it should, though," she answered. Her eyes began to well up.

"You and Daddy are doing everything you can," she repeated.

"The water's boiling," Irena said. "Can you put these in while I finish the rest?" She pointed to the pile of sliced potatoes.

Elise took her time getting up. Back to looking in the mirror, she was doing something with her eyelashes, using her fingertips to separate them. Ordinarily she was not a vain girl. She always kept herself up but did not fuss endlessly like many Laflin girls, the ones with teased hair and so much eyeliner they looked like ladies of the night. Elise was natural looking. She had beautiful, shiny hair, a light chesnut color, that she set every night and brushed into a becoming flip every morning. Her skin had broken out a few times last year, but it was clear now, as Irena had promised her it would be.

Once Elise had dropped the potatoes into the boiling water, Irena asked her to set the table while she herself fried the blood sausage.

Miloslav reappeared. He went over to see what Irena was putting in the big frying pan. "Puke, barf, not again!"

"Stop it, Miloslav! You know it's Friday, and it's one of your uncle's favorites. And don't use the disgusting words you get from those boys."

"How can Uncle Stepan stand it?" Miloslav asked. "There's real pig's blood in there! Look, I see it!"

Miloslav couldn't see any blood. Hanus Sedlak, Laflin's butcher, made his own blood sausages and sold them already cooked.

"They're getting darker now," she told Miloslav. "See? The color of chocolate. Now move." She nudged him away from her stove.

After a few minutes, Irena drained the potatoes, then fried them up in the sausage drippings. She glanced over to the table. "Don't forget the water glasses, zlatícko," she reminded Elise.

For her own account, Irena was happy it was Friday. She couldn't help thinking in terms of her and Stepan's nights versus Elisa and Miloslav's-Czech versus American. The four of them had worked out a deal: she would cook American every day but Tuesdays and Fridays. On those days she was free to cook anything she liked: garlic soup; sauerbraten; roasted pork, dumplings and cabbage; steak with sour cream gravy. In Quincy, Illinois, where Irena's family had settled and where her father had been a cellar manager at the Ruff Brewing Company, there'd never been any question; they had eaten Czech every night, and so had most of Irena's friends, all from Czech families. Stepan had not grown up in Quincy, but he said it had been the same in Downers Grove.

Stepan got in at 6:45, the usual time, and soon they were all seated at the oilcloth-covered table. All day Irena saved her questions and observations about the family's activities so that she might air them during dinner. As the one who prepared the meals, she felt entitled to guide the conversation when everyone sat down at the table. It was necessary that she do so; she had a silent husband, a moody daughter, and a nephew who understood nothing of civility.

"Stepan, Elise is spending the weekend in Chicago," she announced.

Stepan gave his daughter a benign smile. He looked tired, Irena thought. For twenty-one years he'd been a draftsman at Casner & Fitzbaum LLP in Chicago. He had done the renderings for countless low-income apartment complexes, strip malls, storage facilities, and medical plazas. He did not have a degree in architecture and had never mustered the ambition to go after one. Sitting behind his slanted, laminated desk all these years, Stepan had acquired a soft belly and rounded shoulders. Throughout the day he listened to lite FM, and when he came home he appeared to be listening still.

"Elise, tell Táta what you'll be doing in Chicago."

"I'm seeing a couple of performances," said Elise.

Stepan was concentrating on his sauerkraut. Irena had served it cold, in oil with onions and dill. It gave off a briny smell.

"She's going to two dance recitals and one performance at the Goodman Theater," declared Irena proudly.

All those excursions to the Art Institute, Orchestra Hall, and the Civic Opera House had fulfilled their objective. The local dance lessons, the experimental Dalcroze method before Elise was ten, the ceramics, the music theory, children's theater, and drawing classes-these hard-won efforts of Irena's had cultivated Elise to the point where she now sought out enriching experiences on her own. Elise had been accepted by every college she'd applied to, and although Irena duly credited her daughter for being a curious and receptive scholar, her deepest pleasure came from knowing that she herself had done in motherhood what her own mother had never managed to do for her: she had fashioned a young woman with a cultured mind, a person who in a few short years would be able to fit in anywhere she chose to go.

"She's staying with Mindy," continued Irena. "You remember Mindy Wesson, don't you, Stepan? The one who moved back to Chicago when Elise was in the ninth grade?"

"Very nice. I approve," Stepan said. His smile was ironic. Everyone knew his approval was irrelevant.

Friday evening or not, Irena noticed that her nephew enjoyed a hearty appetite. "Good?" she asked him.

"Can I have more potatoes?" Miloslav asked, answering his own question by getting up to take seconds directly from the pan on the stove. Little did he know that in Kutná Hora, where his mother now lived, it would not be so easy to lay meals like this one on the table. What did he understand of communist rule, rations, the black market, deprivation?

"Of course, Mindy was not so lucky with college, isn't that right, Elise?" asked Irena. "She only got into Urbana-Champaign."

"So?" asked Elise in that tone-what was it? Yes, that pugnacious tone. Irena was pleased she remembered the word. She had spoken English to one degree of proficiency or another for thirty years, but she still kept a weekly log of new words. If it sounded ridiculous to smuggle these words into daily conversation, she could at least remind herself of them during opportune moments. Pugnacious. Eager to fight. In Elise's case, pugnacious for no reason.

"So, nothing. I'm just making an observation." She refused to dignify Elise's disrespect by altering her tone. "Tell Táta what you'll be seeing at the Goodman Theater."

"Endgame."

"A Samuel Beckett play, Stepan," Irena said, a touch of reverence in her tone. Mr. Beckett had won the Nobel Prize. He was spoken of as a genius. "A postmodern genius" was the phrase she had heard.

"Very good," Stepan said.

His weary tone made Irena sad. She knew he still felt ashamed that he couldn't pay the greater share of Elise's tuition. But to Irena, the scholarship was another feather in her daughter's cap; she was one of 148 women who would make up Princeton's first coed class. And Princeton had even given her money for the privilege!

"Who's that?" asked Miloslav, turning to Elise. "Who's Samuel Beckett?"

"A man who writes plays."

"I figured that out. God."

"Really? What impressive powers of deduction," said Elise.

"For heaven's sake, Elise, don't talk to him like that. He's your cousin. He was asking a legitimate question."

"I gave him a legitimate answer."

"You gave him a rude answer. And one that does not become a young lady on her way to Princeton."

"May I be excused?"

"You're not finished," said Irena. "Stepan, do you want the rest of Elise's supper?"

Stepan held his plate out to Elise, and she transferred the remains of her blood sausage and potatoes.

"Now can I go?" Elise asked.

"I suppose. Stepan, may Elise be excused?"

"Would I stop her?" he asked.

After Elise and then Miloslav left the table, Irena busied herself finishing her supper. Stepan sighed. He pushed aside his plate and discreetly opened his belt buckle. Irena knew it would be only a matter of seconds before he too excused himself and went down to his workshop in the basement. He would stay there all evening, working on his model of Karlstein Castle, the famous castle between Praha and Plzen. He had been working on it for seven years. Just as in the office, Stepan listened to lite FM as he worked. Irena did not know how he sustained this silence within himself. When she'd married him, he had been as rowdy as the other boys at the lumberyard where he had worked. She'd had no way of knowing that his sociability had been designed for the purpose of finding himself a wife.

After she had dried and put away the pots and pans, Irena went into the living room to fetch her paperback copy of Madame Bovary. She had just vacuumed and dusted in there, and couldn't bring herself to take up her usual place on the La-Z-Boy chair. Instead, she brought the book back to the kitchen, her favorite room. Even though the oak cabinets and woodwork were old, their golden honey color and high varnish made her feel cozy. The bright yellow wallpaper, which she had chosen when they'd first moved in, was starting to separate at the seams in two places, but she still loved its pattern of floating red roosters.

Settling down at the table, Irena removed the bookmark from Madame Bovary. She was up to the overnight ball, where Emma refuses to dance with her husband but then dances with the Viscount. Irena felt sorry for Emma's husband, Charles, and wanted to find out how he'd react. But then Elise appeared with her duffel bag slung over her shoulder, ready to be driven to the train station. She stood there waiting for Irena to interrupt her reading and get her car keys.

In America, it was all about the children. Irena had been living in this country far longer than she'd lived in Bohemia, and if she didn't understand this by now, she figured, she never would. In Bohemia it had been the opposite: parents' needs were the ones that had determined their children's fate. No child could hope to surpass his parents' fortune. But here in the United States, in the state of Illinois, every child was worth priming for a magnificent future. So, tired as Irena was, she put down Madame Bovary and followed Elise out to the Blazeks' old green Valiant.

* * *

Sunday was laundry day, and that afternoon Irena was busy with the ironing from two loads of wash. Miloslav had gone to watch a Cubs' game at a friend's house, and Stepan was taking a nap in their room. When the phone rang, Irena glanced at her watch, wondering if it could already be time to get Elise at the train station. She left her ironing to go pick up the extension in the hall.

"Is this the Blaznik residence?"

"Blazek."

"Sorry. The Blazeks in Laflin?"

"Who is this?"

"This is Officer Grogan of the Chicago Police Department. Is this Mrs. Blazek?"

"What's happened?!"

"We have your daughter Elise here, Mrs. Blazek. She's perfectly fine, but we've had to apprehend her."

"Apprehend?"

"Arrest."

"Arrest!"

"We found her vandalizing private property. She's very upset, but she's not in possession of illegal drugs. Whether she's on them is another question."

"Oh no, this is a mistake."

"Elise Katrinka Blazek? Born April 12, 1951?"

"Wait, I have to get my husband." Irena ran to the threshold of their bedroom. "Stepan! Wake up! Pick up the phone! It's the Chicago police."

In a moment, she was back on the line. "He's coming. What do you mean destroying private property? Elise would never do such a thing."

"Legally speaking, your daughter's not a minor anymore," said Officer Grogan. "But she gave us your number, and as a courtesy-"

There was a click on the line. "Hello?" said Stepan, sounding surprised to hear his own voice.

"Mr. Blazek, your daughter Elise is here at District One. She's lucky no one pressed charges. Even though she's of age, we'd prefer to release her to the custody of her parents."

"We'll take her," said Stepan, as if Officer Grogan had just offered Elise up for sale.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Radiant Daughter by Patricia Grossman Copyright © 2010 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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