Poliner’s follow-up to Mutual Life & Casualty (2005) limns a Jewish family too close-knit for its individual members’ good.
“The summer of 1948 my brother Davy was killed in an accident,” Molly tells us in her first sentence. Twelve years old at the time, she looks back from the vantage point of 1999 to consider the fraught family dynamic that contributed to the accident. The Syrkin sisters—Vivie, Bec, and Molly’s mother, Ada—summer every year with their families on “Bagel Beach,” one of the few portions of the Connecticut shore open to Jews. Their distrust of outsiders is understandable, with the Holocaust a recent memory, but as Molly’s narration delves into dramas from before and after Davy’s death, we see that the family’s collective needs too often take precedence over personal happiness—especially if it involves moving beyond their tight little community’s boundaries. Molly’s uncle Nelson lost the love of his life when he dutifully went to work in the family department store instead of pursuing the academic career he wanted. Her brother Howard, in love with an Irish Catholic girl, rejects her after Davy’s death, seeing it as punishment for being “self-indulgent.” Molly’s cousin Nina also takes away from the accident a deep sense of guilt and unworthiness to be loved that scars her life. Warm scenes of Shabbos dinners and summer leisure evoke the appeal of this sheltering world, but an ugly quarrel between Molly’s parents makes clear that it's governed by strict rules, and those who violate them will be punished. Selfish, fun-loving, ultimately devastated Ada is perhaps the most emotionally tangled family member, but Poliner depicts each character with sensitivity and insight. Molly’s coming-of-age is the delicate connective tissue that binds together the novel’s chronologically fragmented episodes, revealing them as pieces in a mosaic of enlarged understanding—the narrator’s and ours.
Beautifully written, stringently unsentimental, and yet tender in its empathy for the perennial human conflict between service and self.