A Buffalo family personifies quiet desperation in this first novel by Iowa Short Fiction Award winner Reisman (House Fires, 1999).
Abraham, a dour jeweler, is the widower-patriarch of the Cohen family, who occupy a rambling house on tree-lined Lancaster Street, a powerfully traditional Jewish home that Abraham’s four daughters and one son struggle to escape from with varying degrees of success. Ponderous, incantatory prose and painstaking attention to mundane domestic detail, not to mention much interior musing, slow the narrative but deepen our identification with the characters’ plights. Taking place in the 1930s and ’40s, the story is told from the points of view of second daughter Sadie, who finds provisional refuge in marriage to a dentist; Goldie, the oldest, who immigrated late, with her mother, from Ukraine and is hence a stranger to her father; middle child Jo, a latent lesbian who rebels against being forced into the role of surrogate mother when Goldie bolts; and baby brother Irving, spoiled from birth, perennially torn between pressures to conform to the bourgeois values of a tight-knit Jewish community and the temptations of loose women and gambling. The Depression, along with the pre- and post-WWII eras, are evoked vividly, as is the sense of a vise gradually tightening upon Abe’s children as one after another they either accept their lot as family servants or act out their frustrations—in the meantime competing to escape the threatening, feared, and imprisoning burden of youngest daughter Celia’s mental “peculiarity” (in the parlance of the day). Abe’s mistress, Lillian, longs for marriage but is ultimately thankful for not having been dragged into the “morass” of the Cohen household. Goldie’s self-realization as she slips off the coils of her hometown is the only hopeful note in this grimly purposeful tale, where the fog of seething resentments (Niagara is a recurring symbol) can’t entirely obscure sporadic gleams of familial love.
Beneath the sepia tint, fully imagined lives.