An ebullient novel about family secrets and the triumph of sisterly love
Driven by a legacy of lies, the shame of their own imperfections, and impending chaos in each of their well-ordered married lives, the three Wasserman daughters struggle with themselves and one another to break their parents' silence and understand their past.
Shoshanna, control freak and world-class problem solver, stands on the brink of a Big Birthday in the shadow of the Evil Eye, trying to enjoy her happiness and to overcome her fears while also engineering a double reconciliation between her estranged sisters, and between Leah and their rabbi father. Leah, a brilliant English professor and unreconstructed leader of the left, eloquent and foul-mouthed, a crusading feminist and a passionately conflicted wife and mother, grapples with the meaning of abandonment and the unfamiliar demands of her own roiling needs. Rachel, who has papered over her losses with an athlete's discipline, a fact fetishist's sense of order, and a pragmatism bordering on self-sacrifice, watches her carefully constructed world fall apart and in the rubble discovers the woman she was meant to be.
Three Daughters is a rich and complex story of three lives, their loves, and the web of relationships that either hold these lives together or hopelessly entangle them.
|Farrar, Straus and Giroux
About the Author
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is the co-founder of Ms. magazine, a nationally known lecturer, and author of eight books of nonfiction, most recently Deborah, Golda and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America and Getting Over Getting Older, a memoir. Three Daughters is her first novel. She lives with her husband in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
By Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2002 Letty Cottin Pogrebin
All rights reserved.
THE DRIVER OF THE DODGE CARAVAN gave Shoshanna the finger, gesticulating furiously through his windshield like the villain in a silent movie.
You couldn't blame the guy. She was a horrific sight—a wild-eyed middle-aged virago in a mud-splattered coat racing across the Henry Hudson Parkway to snatch a piece of paper from the pavement. She rammed the paper into her pocket and ran back to the shoulder of the road, unflustered by her close call, then dropped to her haunches and studied the oncoming traffic. That was the nerve-racking part, waiting for the right conditions, the perfect moment to lunge. A station wagon roared past, revving up the wind. In its wake, a momentary lull, an open space, plenty of time to sprint out, snatch up another scrap, and fly back to her redoubt at the edge of the highway before the next car rounding the bend in the distance could reach her. She'd timed it perfectly, her road dance.
Wait. Run. Retreat.
Wait. Run. Retreat.
Shoshanna might have passed for a litter-phobic environmentalist but for her periodically emptying her overstuffed pockets onto the back seat of her Volvo and smoothing each bedraggled sheet with the tenderness of a poet saving love letters from the flames. The salvage from the highway was, however, unromantic—the tattered remains of her Filofax, which, despite manifestly hazardous working conditions, she'd succeeded over the course of the afternoon in repossessing piece by piece. More surprising to her than the virtuosity of her performance was the fact that it was necessary at all. That she herself had triggered this paper chase, this anarchy in the afternoon, made no sense. Such things happened to other people, not to the archenemy of disorder, the ultra-organized Shoshanna Wasserman Safer, for whom chaos was anathema and mindfulness next to godliness. Losing track of something as important as her Filofax was consistent with neither her sense of self nor the profession she practiced with a rare blend of doggedness and delight. Shoshanna made a living straightening out other people's messes. She systematized, organized, solved problems, averted crises. Keeping Things Under Control was both her obsession and her job. She tamed the wildness, knowing better than most how quickly chaos can overtake one's life when given the slightest opportunity.
Thirty years ago, on a California beach, she'd seen a joyful day turn tragic simply because she and her best friend had not been paying attention. The Evil Eye—that stalker for whom human contentment is an affront and bliss an incitement to riot—had leapt into the breach and the worst had happened. Ever since, she'd been keeping an eye on the Eye, studying its wily ways, noting how effortlessly it could transform a carefree walk in the woods into a deadly struggle against nature, a marshmallow roast into a conflagration, or a healthy pregnancy into a nightmare of loss. She knew its habits: laughter was its lure, pleasure its call to action, good fortune its invitation to havoc. The Eye could sneak up from behind and give a person a hard shove into chaos as easily as a car might stray across the white line on this highway. Because she understood this, Shoshanna had become a stalker of the stalker, guarding against the fall of its shadow across her path, tuned to its footsteps in the dark.
This compulsion, she'd learned to her dismay, she shared with Charles Lindbergh. The renowned aviator, WASP avatar and Nazi sympathizer, was hardly the soul mate she'd have chosen had she not read in his daughter's memoir that he was "ever on the alert for dangers, though the dangers were unspecified. 'It's the unforseen ...' he would warn us. 'It's always the unforeseen.'" Shoshanna Safer had become a watchdog of the unforeseen, an expert on preventable chaos, and because nothing dire had happened in her orbit since that desolating day on the California beach, she'd come to believe that the only force capable of defeating her was divine whimsy—a flash flood, a letter bomb, the freak accident like the one that sent a construction crane plummeting forty stories to land on her neighbor's leg. Random strikes were beyond her capacity to predict or prevent. But today's accident couldn't be blamed on God's caprice or the stalker. This was a mess of her own making.
Wait. Run. Retreat.
Whirling on and off the highway, scavenging pages, she struggled to reconstruct how she'd lost track of the datebook in the first place. Remembered having it at the breakfast table that morning when she'd flipped through it in search of a free weekend. (She and Daniel had been trying to get away together since New Year's.) And when she went downstairs to her office, coffee cup in one hand, datebook in the other, always a two-fisted journey. (Running a business from the garden floor of their brownstone had greatly increased her productivity once she'd figured out how to keep work and family separate, with the help of the Filofax.) Had it when she'd called her cousin Warren to congratulate him on his promotion (thanks to the reminder her secretary, Fiona, London's gift to a Jewish compulsive, had written in the 10 a.m. slot). And when she'd grabbed a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich at her desk and a dollop of strawberry jam dripped on today's page—Wednesday, February 17, 1999. Ash Wednesday. The day she lost control. The day order turned to ashes.
Could have left the book behind on her desk, its sticky spot drying in the sun; but no, she remembered it lying on the passenger seat exactly where it belonged, open to the route directions Fiona had clipped to the calendar page to facilitate the drive to Riverdale. The new client had been waiting on his porch when Shoshanna swung into his driveway. Blue jeans, cashmere V-neck the color of moss, moccasins with no socks, though it was about 30 degrees out. His jeans, she'd noted, were pressed. An ashy smudge marked the center of his forehead. Perversely, it reminded Shoshanna of the Star of David her sister Rachel wore on a chain around her neck as proudly as if it were the Croix de Guerre. Rachel's trademarks were the Jewish star and the double strand of pearls she wore virtually every day of her life, though the pearls came off now and then—say at the beach or on the treadmill—while the Magen David never left her chest. Shoshanna, discomfited by public displays of religion, had a mezuzah tacked to her doorpost, but that was it. Why stir up the anti-Semites? The smudge on the client's face seemed to shout "Catholic! Catholic!" and she'd wondered if her naked forehead was shouting back "Jew! Jew!"
In his wood-paneled study, Venetian blinds sliced the winter sun into gauzy slats. Dust motes floated lazily on bars of afternoon light. Fresh-squeezed orange juice glowed in crystal goblets. A woman notices when a man does something like that. Then again, after years of monitoring the stalker, Shoshanna noticed everything. She'd registered how neat he was, how orderly, and his study even more so. Tidy stacks of magazines squared off on the coffee table like troops on review. Diverse interests—Time in one pile, Men's Health in another, The New York Review of Books, Travel & Leisure, Foreign Affairs. A pyramid of green apples rose from a wooden bowl. Beside an upholstered wing chair stood a small table bearing a phone and a notepad with the words Milk, Eggs, Brillo, Post Office written in a fine hand. Clearly, he wasn't one of those newly divorced men who need help stocking their pantries, a task she'd been called upon to perform more than once. So what did he want her to do? Test-drive his Viagra?
"Retired this year. Widowed. Wanna join a gym," he'd announced in a flat staccato, and handed her a sheet headed Health Clubs. "Check these out, would you? And be exacting." He wanted her to evaluate six local gyms—compare their facilities (state-of-the-art equipment? climbing wall? pool?) and their classes (varied? crowded? good hours?); interview personal trainers (low-key? hyper? motivating body types?); survey the locker rooms (clean carpets? thick towels? wide lockers?); and sample the fruit smoothies.
"Details under each category, please," he'd added, pointing to his ruled columns. "I'll review your findings and join the best one. Clear?"
"Yes, sir!" She'd felt an impulse to salute.
He'd risen from his chair, a client after her own heart, a man who knew when to end a meeting. (If hell existed, Shoshanna was sure it would turn out to be a meeting.) Still in the moss sweater, no coat, he had accompanied her out to the Volvo, and as they'd stood there on the passenger side, she'd extended her hand and said, "Looking forward to working with you." Stock line, only this time she'd meant it. Being spectacularly sedentary, she might even shape up on his dime. "So, when do you need this?"
"How's six weeks hence?"
Hence? Who'd he think he was—Alistair Cooke? She'd flipped the pages of the Filofax to March 31 and, bracing the book against her fender, had written Health club report due (in perfect penmanship, in case he was watching). She was about to open the passenger door and toss the Filofax on the front seat as usual, the way she always did, when he'd tugged at her arm like an excited kid.
"Hey! Before you go, come see the view."
Shoshanna had interrupted herself mid-gesture and—because she always indulged her clients—set the book on the car roof, and followed the man around to the back of his house, where a wide lawn, pockmarked with old snow, sloped to the banks of the Hudson River. Dried poufs of hydrangea blossoms clung to bare branches. Tall pines swayed with the breeze. It was hard to believe they were only minutes from Times Square; the Edenic hush, the water gleaming like molten glass in the glow of the late-afternoon sun. Even the dour outlines of New Jersey seemed incandescent.
"Nice, huh?" he'd asked, his pale eyes watering. He'd wiped his face with his sleeve. The mossy sweater came away streaked with ash. The mark on his forehead had faded to a ghost image in shadowy taupe; he was a neat man with a dirty face. He was thinking of his wife, he said, the sunsets he now had to watch without her. Something throbbed in Shoshanna's throat. A presentiment that her beloved Daniel would die someday, most likely before she did, and she would be alone.
"Amazing! And to think we're in the Bronx!" she'd said quickly, blotting out the thought.
"Riverdale," he'd corrected. As they ambled back to her car, the man began reminiscing about his wife, how she brought out hot cider in a thermos for their winter sunsets, how the light played on her face, how she died eighteen months after they learned she had a brain tumor. Shoshanna, fearing the chaos of her own empathy, finessed a gentle farewell, hastily jumped behind the wheel, and took off, never noticing the Filofax on the roof on the passenger side. After all these years, the stalker had found its opening and pounced.
Squatting now at the edge of the highway waiting for her next dash, she could imagine what must have happened. The datebook, heavy in its leather binder, had stayed put as the car snaked through Riverdale's quiet, tree-lined streets. But once she'd pulled onto the highway and picked up speed, the wind had whipped open its cover and sheared through its pages, carrying away her telephone directory in the downdrafts of winter, ripping her calendar from its rings, sheet by sheet, the way old movies show the passage of time, yanking attachments from their staples and paper clips. In minutes, the tidiness of a lifetime was torn from its moorings and set adrift.
She could visualize all that now, after the fact, but hours ago, when she'd first started driving home from Riverdale with her new work assignment and a slice of the widower's sorrow, she hadn't known anything was amiss until her cell phone rang.
"Hi, Mom. Any chance you could babysit Saturday night?" Nelly always cut to the chase, a habit that doubtless contributed to her competence as a horseback-riding instructor, though it made for rather perfunctory conversation.
"Love to, Nell. One sec, I'll see if we're free." She'd reached for the Filofax and had nearly run off the road when the seat beside her yielded only upholstery buttons and a flaccid safety strap. Impossible. It had to be there. It was always there. The minute she got in the car, reflexively, even before turning the key in the ignition, she would prop the datebook on the passenger seat like a companion riding shotgun. Where else could it be? "Call you back, Nell," she'd gulped into the phone and hit the Off button before her daughter could ask what was wrong.
A signpost announced FOR EMERGENCIES ONLY. Surely a missing Filofax qualifies. She'd piloted the car into the rest stop and searched the floor, between the seats, the gearshift well, the rear seat, even the glove compartment, though the bulging book couldn't have fit in on a bet. She'd rummaged in her satchel for the organizer's familiar contours, then, ever more frantically, combed each crevice of the car a second time. Coming up empty, she'd burst into tears. Ten miles from home, yet she'd felt cosmically dislocated, as if she'd lost her footing on the planet. Her gravitational pull, her grounding, the finely meshed gears of her life, depended on her Filofax. The fat black book was the curator of her commitments, the repository of every appointment, address, phone, and fax number, plus an uncountable number of items she'd clipped, wedged, shoved, stapled, tucked, or pressed between its scuffed leather covers—not just credit cards and business cards but restaurant reviews, expense slips, snapshots, theater tickets, fabric swatches, poems, aphorisms, and a zillion memory joggers. Shoshanna's muchadmired capacity to remember not only her friends' birthdays and anniversaries but their food allergies, wine preferences, favorite flowers, kids' names, the gifts she'd given them in the past, and the food they'd eaten at her dinner table (so she wouldn't duplicate a menu) had been made possible by the record-keeping systems in her Filofax. She'd never bothered to memorize her schedule; that's what the calendar section was for. It told her what she had to do, where she had to go, what she had to look forward to, or dread. Without it, she couldn't function. Without it, her nexts would be nevers. Clients would be waiting for projects she'd forgotten were due. There would be empty seats in concert halls, angry hosts at dinner parties. She would disappoint, offend, irritate. Great chunks of her life would vanish; her time would be ungovernable, her world would turn upside down. Without it, she wouldn't show up in her own future.
Energized by a billowing panic, she'd gunned the Volvo out of the rest stop and retraced her route to where she'd first entered the highway and there had found the stuff of her life blanketing the southbound lanes like the after-trash of a ticker-tape parade. Everything was everywhere: calendar pages and address sheets tattooed by tire marks, flapping against the concrete divider, lodged in the slush, impaled on bare branches, snared by the chain-link fence. A wedding invitation plastered to a speed-limit sign like a Lost Dog notice. A memo wrapped around a lamppost. Receipts fluttering in the brush. The asphalt looked like a hundred bulletin boards run over by a Mack truck.
Excerpted from Three Daughters by Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Copyright © 2002 Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Reading Group Guide
About This Guide
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to augment your group's reading of Letty Cottin Pogrebin's first novel, Three Daughters, a tale of family secrets gone awry and the enduring love that ultimately binds the Wasserman sisters together. We hope this guide will enhance your discussion of the story and help to improve your understanding of the three strong-willed sisters, Rachel, Leah, and Shoshanna.
Three sisters who are bound together by their father-the prominent and distinguished New York City patriarch Rabbi Sam Wasserman-struggle to find new meaning in their past as they confront the future. Sam, who relocated to Israel, is returning to New York for the millennium to receive an honorary award and reunite with his estranged daughter, Leah. Sam holds the key to the final family secret-a secret that, once revealed, will bring answers to the questions of their past.
Meet Rachel, the eldest daughter, who "majored in sports and sex at school and was known to excel at both," a.k.a. "our resident Bible expert, Mrs. [Jeremy] Brent," an obsessive fact-fetishist who never leaves her perfect Long Island home without her mother's double-strand pearl necklace.
Next comes "the battleship Leah," a "thorny feminist" permanently clad in black and a voracious intellectual whose professorial writings include an essay entitled "Mess as Metaphor": "The messier your life, the richer. The existence of mess is proof that the woman who lives in that house has more important things to do. To mess is human; to ignore mess divine. All together now, repeat after me: Fuck housework!"
Last, but not least, we have the youngest daughter, Shoshanna Wasserman Safer, a "100-proof goody-goody," happily married, compulsively organized, a control freak in every possible way, and . . . timidly approaching her fiftieth birthday.
Three Daughters is a rich and complex story of three lives, their loves, and the web of relationships that either hold these lives together or hopelessly entangle them.
Questions for Discussion
1. Describe Rachel's, Leah's, and Shoshanna's characters. Each woman faces her own problems and fears. Do you sympathize more with one than another? Does your opinion change as the novel progresses? While the three sisters' differences may be obvious, what are some of their similarities?
2. "The Evil Eye-that stalker for whom human contentment is an affront and bliss an incitement to riot" (p. 4) takes hold of Shoshanna's life from the moment she finds out about her family's greatest secret on the beach when she is twelve years old. How and why does the Evil Eye haunt Shoshanna? How has Shoshanna adjusted her lifestyle to keep the Evil Eye at bay? At what points in the novel does the Evil Eye reappear?
3. According to Leah, "When you're perfect, people feel they have to find something wrong with you. Let your flaws hang out and everyone roots for you" (p. 33). Do you think Leo would agree with Leah's statement?
4. "Okay, Daddy; here's what I learned today on the beach in Maine: Nothing is as it seems. Facts are a mirage. Mothers and fathers can't be trusted. A sister can turn out to be a half sister and a liar. Distilled to its essence, the message was: Betrayal is everywhere" (p. 43). What have secrets done to the Wasserman family's dynamics? What other secrets do the Wassermans hold?
5. "Sam truly believed that human beings were created in the image of God and thus were capable of limitless cognitive feats and, if given sufficient information in an age-appropriate and intellectually creative manner, could understand anything" (p. 47). The final family secret is revealed on the eve of Sam's ninetieth birthday. Could Leah have handled the truth any sooner?
6. "When [Sam] married Esther, he wrapped Rachel in his bear hug and slaked her lifelong thirst for fathering" (p. 84). Is it surprising that Rachel marries Jeremy? In the end, does Rachel fill her needs the way you expected?
7. Leah describes Leo as "everything she'd always insisted a man be permitted to be-sensitive, emotional, nurturant, compromising, noncompetitive, math-anxious, hardware-challenged, willing to ask for directions. The problem wasn't that he was weak, it was that his strengths were so quiet and unassuming-gentleness, consistency, commitment to the people he loved. His long suit: unshakable devotion" (p. 179). Does Leah replace Sam with Leo? Why, after finding her ideal husband, does Leah push him away?
8. The three sisters are all at the point in their lives when their age is at the forefront of their minds. Leah did not expect to be abandoned by Leo, Freddy, and Henry. Rachel saw her marriage as a never-ending fairy tale. Shoshanna thought she would always be in control. How are the three sisters dealing with aging? How are they handling change?
9. Leah "vowed to be a good mother, better by far than the deranged Dena, and to raise her boys to be better men than Sam, who'd been a macher in the world but an emotional midget at home. She'd come up short on both counts" (p. 140). Do you think Leah failed at motherhood? If so, do you forgive her?
10. As a longtime leader in the feminist movement, Letty Cottin Pogrebin developed three very distinct women. How does each woman's character evolve over time?
11. Do you find it morally defensible that Rabbi Wasserman put his reputation above the well-being of his daughter?
12. Why does Leah treat her husband and sons the way she does? Is she truthful when she describes her problems as "nugatory hametz"? "Hametz. Metaphor for the unwanted shit in life, the crap you want to get rid of," and "nugatory," meaning "[t]rifling [and] [w]orthless" (pp. 250-51).
13. Rachel sacrifices security in exchange for freedom when she divorces Jeremy. After forty years of playing the Good Housekeeping wife (p. 325), she realizes that Jeremy is nothing but a deceitful "crashing bore" (p. 331). Rachel copes with her divorce remarkably well. What role does Judaism have in her recovery?
14. Letty Cottin Pogrebin chose a quotation from Yehuda Amichai as her epigraph: "I learned to speak among the pains." What is the significance of this phrase for the novel?
15. What role does guilt play in the novel? What about regret? Fear? Self-deception? Tradition? Memory?
16. In Chapter Two, Shoshanna remembers "searching for words to describe her relationship with her middle sister, as if defining it might make it easier. Neurotic? Galvanic? Knotty? Ambivalent? Combative? Nothing seemed exactly right. Bogged down, she'd settled for 'the opposite of my relationship with Rachel.' Fourteen years her senior as opposed to Leah's twelve, Rachel called forth an entirely different vocabulary: Accepting. Supportive. Genial. Sustaining. Effortless. The 'Good Sister' (as Leah had dubbed her) was easy to be with no matter how often they got together, while with the 'Bad Sister,' an annual reunion was enough, more than enough; too much, even" (p. 33). How would Shoshanna describe her relationships with her sisters at the end of the novel?
17. "The difference between solitude and loneliness is the difference between chosen isolation and abandonment" (p. 68). How does this sentence play a part in each daughter's life?
18. What do the mirrors and clocks in Rachel's house symbolize?
19. "T. S. Eliot could have had [Shoshanna] in mind when he wrote: 'I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.' Was that why she'd lost control of her datebook-to throw a monkey wrench into her time measurements? To challenge her habit of meting out life in half-hour segments, her dependence on externally imposed order? Maybe she was unable to remember what she was supposed to do next because most of her activities were fundamentally meaningless, while her husband knew his schedule by heart because his commitments were worth remembering. Maybe the discombobulated Filofax would force her to edit her life-not just reconstruct the flyaway pages but rethink them" (pp. 103-4). Shoshanna is considering letting go of the impossible grip she imposes on her life and the world around her. If she does, do you think her life will be more meaningful? What will change?
20. What does Leah think of Shoshanna's business, My Time Is Your Time? Do you agree with her?
21. After learning that news of Esther's breast cancer had been withheld from her while the rest of the family knew, Shoshanna says, "What good was it to know bad news if you couldn't do anything about it? Why tell the truth if there's nothing to be gained from it? The Wasserman philosophy in a nutshell" (p. 122). Does Shoshanna agree with this philosophy? If the daughters could turn back time, do you think they would have wanted to know the whole truth from the start?
22. Ritual, ceremony, calendars, and holidays play a key role in the novel. Can you chart their impact on each character?
23. What message is the author giving us about family dynamics and love?
24. What is Three Daughters ultimately about?
About the Author
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a cofounder of Ms. magazine, a nationally known lecturer, and the author of eight books of nonfiction, most recently Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America and Getting Over Getting Older, a memoir. Three Daughters is her first novel. She lives with her husband in New York City.