An epic fictional account of an immigrant family’s settlement in the United States, as told from a little girl’s perspective.
Cyrella’s parents are both Russian Jews who fled their native country at the turn of the last century to elude persecution. They land in Saskatchewan, Canada, where her father, Max, owns and operates a general store. Eventually, he sells the business, moves the family to an apartment in Brooklyn, and immediately struggles to make ends meet. In a fit of desperation, he opens up a tailoring business in yet another brutally uncomfortable tenement. Max and wife Rosie have two sons (although another six die) and Cyrella, who becomes the primary protagonist of the story; her all-too-gradually blossoming maturity in some ways mirrors the family’s struggle to fully acclimate to new environs. Cyrella is both precocious and guileless at the same time, stunningly adept when it comes to bookish or artistic endeavors but painfully shy, even childish, when it comes to matters of the world. Early on, she suffers two sexual traumas that may have contributed to this stunted development, but the narration never directly ties her later struggles to these ordeals. Her love of learning is insatiable and sophisticated, though: she has a particular fondness for movies and books and discovers an enthusiasm for theater while away at summer camp. Her immaturity, accentuated by her diminutive stature, complicates her budding romantic longings. Finally, she meets an aspiring doctor and for the first time love seems unconfined to poetry and dreams. Author Landis has a background in poetry, which often shines through in the polished prose of her debut novel. At times, it reads like a series of disconnected anecdotes, and real tragedy, such as the suicide of Cyrella’s Uncle Herschel after he loses his life’s savings in the stock market crash of 1929, are given short shrift. Also, the book ends with an inexplicable abruptness, making it feel unfinished. The writing is undeniably charming, however, as is the main character.
A flawed novel, but its charismatic protagonist may win readers over nonetheless.