Suspense writer Steinberg (Death in a City of Mystics, 1998, etc.) folds a missing person mystery into a Jewish multigenerational family history set in Boyle Heights, once a distinctly Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles.
About to move into a Los Angeles retirement home, former activist lawyer Elaine is preparing her archives to donate to USC when she stumbles upon a business card from the private detective she worked with in her 20s, Philip Marlowe no less: They met when she was the cute, intellectual clerk in The Big Heat bookstore scene. Soon, 80-something Elaine is revving up a renewed search for her twin sister, Barbara, based on a name she finds scribbled on the back of Philip’s card: Kay Devereaux. Meanwhile, she is remembering her childhood. Steinberg’s Boyle Heights is the quintessential, bordering on stereotypical, early-20th-century Jewish-American ghetto. Elaine’s mother, an immigrant from Romania with a dramatic streak, and her father, a shoe salesman who had to quit high school despite his love of literature after his older brother died in World War I, head the cast of colorful relatives as Elaine’s stories pile on a glut of dramatic coincidences and family lore that may or may not be true. At the center of Elaine’s memories is her relationship with Barbara. As children, the twins were inseparable even though Barbara was social and lively, Elaine quiet and smart. By high school, the sisters were moving in different directions, Elaine toward scholarship and idealism, Barbara toward the Hollywood world of entertainment. They both loved the same boy, Danny, who loved both of them in different ways. Then, in 1939, after an event Elaine is loath to remember, Barbara disappeared.
Despite raising provocative questions about twinship, Jewish identity, family roles and betrayal, Steinberg’s attempt to combine a heartstring pulling, realistic family saga and film-noirish mystery-solving feels unsatisfying and slightly bipolar.