MUTUAL LIFE & CASUALTY by Elizabeth Poliner


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A series of normalized, slice-of-life vignettes from first-timer Poliner shows the sad fallout of a divorce on a 1970s Jewish family.

The title is taken from the Hartford insurance company where father Daniel Kahn is an executive, providing an unusually lucrative life for his family in Wells, Connecticut, where other dads are machinists at Pratt and Whitney. The Kahns—homemaker mother Naomi, daughters Carolyn and Hannah—are the only Jews in town, owners of a big, newly renovated house and fancy stereo. The money from provider Dad flows freely, and shopping trips to Loehmann’s are frequent. But the Kahn parents aren’t getting along: they differ on the election of Richard Nixon, then on Watergate, as Dad has conservative ideas and Mom begins to assert different feelings of her own. “Can you support what you feel with facts?” Father asks scornfully of his wife, indicating the deepening fissures between them. Mom’s burgeoning self-awareness coincides with the two girls’ teenaged years, and Dad, grown demanding, critical, bossy and ineffectual, is squeezed out, after 23 years of marriage. Other vignettes pursue the painful adolescence of daughter Carolyn and her popular, anorexic girlfriend Clarissa as they smoke pot under the eyes of their elders; Hannah’s first sexual experience, with boyfriend Jackie; her later pregnancy, at 31, in 1993, when she finally decides to have a baby with him; and Carolyn’s going to college in Miami, to get as far away from Wells as possible. Poliner explores the various well-trod currents of the era—the women’s movement, the exercise craze, the explosion of sex, the general smashing of familial relationships—only to come around to Hannah’s rueful conclusion as she holds her new baby in her arms: “Mostly I feel like I’ve never lived a life.”

A general, lukewarm approach in loosely related stories without a burning theme or focus.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2005
ISBN: 1-57962-112-0
Page count: 221pp
Publisher: Permanent Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2004