An Italian American showgirl gives up her daughter for love in this novel.
The story opens with the aging Lina “Lila” Granatelli looking over old photographs in the living room of her elegant Palm Beach, Florida, home. A former stage performer, Lila examines a wartime photo that was given to servicemen who attended her shows. Meanwhile, a piano tuner works on her white baby grand—a wedding present given to Lila by her husband—which she has not played in the 15 years since he died. The tale flips back to the late 1930s with Lila, who has adopted the stage name Lila Grand, beginning her career in the chorus of a Broadway musical. Lila finds herself pregnant by Joe Prince, a fellow cast member who, pursuing his career, leaves her to raise her child alone. Two months after giving birth to Gloria, Lila is back on Broadway and becomes something of a minor celebrity. She meets and falls in love with Willie Burke, a wealthy New Yorker whose family owns a construction business. The Burke family is appalled by the fact the Willie intends to marry a single mother. Lila is told by Willie that Gloria won’t be living with them. Lila reluctantly gives her child to her brother and sister-in-law to raise as their own in St. Louis. But a harrowing legal battle and emotional turmoil ensue when Willie discovers that he is infertile and asks Lila to take the now-8-year-old Gloria back as their own.
Bachner (Last Clear Chance, 2015) is capable of writing deeply moving passages, including describing a mother’s love for her young daughter. Early in the story, Lila and her baby daughter share this tender moment on the street: “Lila started the kissing game, quickly kissing Gloria in one corner of her face and then another while Gloria tried to catch her with her hands. This time Gloria was successful, and the chubby fingers grasped Lila’s nose for a moment. They both laughed.” Such episodes make Lila’s decision concerning her daughter—agreeing to give up Gloria so readily—deeply implausible. At first, Lila balks at the suggestion, reacting violently, but she’s later persuaded. Besides Lila’s precocious love for Willie and some sketchy advice from a priest referencing Moses, the author does not provide a sufficiently persuasive set of motives for this abrupt reversal. Bachner’s previous novel was criticized for its prolixity—his second offering has a better pace, and his observations are crisper and more condensed. Describing Lila in old age, he writes: “This is her final stage: an elegant, flightless butterfly, subsisting without nourishment or effort as her one day’s sun completes its circuit.” Yet the tale hinges on a scene that the author struggles to make believable—and this proves to be a major flaw. This is an elegantly written book weakened by a storyline most readers will question.
A stylishly structured and poetically described family tale hampered by an improbable key moment.