A tragic past and a difficult present converge quietly and compassionately in Raeff’s debut, a tale of three generations of women in a family still coming to terms with the Holocaust.
In 1996, the oldest generation, in the figure of 86-year-old Ruth, is still unbowed. After the death of her physician husband Karl the year before, Ruth, a former nurse, has begun volunteering daily at an AIDS hospice in Greenwich Village as a way to keep herself active. The youngest generation, represented by teenaged granddaughter Deborah, is still facing the questions of youth: how to deal with friends, family, and the future. But she is a talented cellist, and playing her music gives her a refuge from the current family crisis. For it is the middle generation, Deborah’s mother and Ruth’s daughter, the depressed and bedridden Clara, who seems most oppressed by the family’s past. Ruth finds an outlet for her frustration with Clara by telling her life story to Tommy, an embittered hospice patient dying without having told his family. She speaks of her own childhood in Vienna, of her father’s terminal melancholia, of her father’s doctor becoming her husband (even though he was gay), of their flight from the Nazis and eventual capture late in the war, and of life in the concentration camp, which culminated in the birth of Clara days before they were liberated. Tommy doesn’t live to hear the whole story. Deborah, meanwhile, somewhat uncertain about her own sexuality, runs away from the stench of Clara’s sickness, which pervades their house in New Jersey, and finds herself knocking on Ruth’s door in the city. When no one answers, she goes in through the window to wait, and when Ruth comes home from her last vigil with Tommy, they go together to see what can be done about poor Clara.
A family portrait of considerable eloquence and intelligence, rendered somewhat uneven by Ruth’s portion being the most compelling by far.