No punches are pulled in this gritty “memoir novel” by Eisenberg, who draws on her own Bronx upbringing to depict a nightmare with two ghoulish faces: those of an abusive father and a pill-popping mother.
When their father comes home from WWII, Lucy Lehman and her older brother Nicky are still young enough to enjoy cavorting on their dancer mother Tippy’s back through the park near their apartment. But his return quickly changes all that. Embittered by the loss of his friends in battle, too much a socialist to be comfortable working for capitalist bosses, Dad rages around the house while Mom endures the torrent of abuse, hoping that the good man she married will return. When he launches a business selling snack food throughout the city, family life starts looking up—until the business goes sour. Then he gives up everything and moves out. It’s the last straw for Tippy, who mixes cocktails of uppers and downers and begins tormenting the kids in her own way. Through the kindness of neighbors in the various places they live, Lucy and Nicky are fed and somehow survive Tippy’s drug-laced neglect. After their father leaves his new girlfriend and comes home, enough peace is restored that they can spend three summers at a bohemian upstate camp, where their mother organizes the dance program. But eventually that falls apart too. Entering adolescence, Nicky and Lucy hold on to each other for stability, even making a small splash as a singing duo. Then another, more permanent abandonment by their father spawns renewed abuse from Tippy. Her children run away, but Lucy feels duty-bound to go back, and the final act of this American tragedy runs its short, brutish course. Eisenberg’s tale is so poignant that it’s easy to forgive her melodramatic tendencies.
Painful to read, yet hard to put down: a family drama akin to those of Eugene O’Neill.