A deftly conjured historical novel dealing with the darker side of love and familial legacy.
“It’s a wonder how some relatives can bring out the worst in you,” a minor character muses in Shainin’s cutting debut novel, which examines the fraught matrices of rivalry, desire and resentment within two generations of a German immigrant family in Queens, New York, in the mid-20th century. Two sisters—willful, sensuous Lottie and younger, anxious Sabine—serve as the story’s emotional and narrative focus; Shainin introduces their contrasting personalities in childhood, then follows them to America and throughout their adult lives. Although the book progresses chronologically for the most part (the first and last chapters, narrated by Sabine’s younger daughter, are the exceptions), the plot is not strictly linear, as it focuses on quotidian moments of interpersonal significance rather than a series of remarkable events. From chapter to chapter, it’s often difficult to tell how much time has passed or just what’s transpired in the interim, but this is one of the pleasures of this impeccably constructed book: The arguments are repeated, but the characters remain stagnant. Though Lottie and Sabine choose radically different mates, both men drink too much; each in her own way, the sisters find themselves resigned to the limitations of married, working-class life. The world of mid-century New York City, in particular, comes to life through Shainin’s fine sense of detail: “Today the East River was the color of her mother’s unpolished pewter plates. Only when a tugboat’s passage broke the dull skin did Lottie feel the water had any dimension at all.” Although the book loses a bit of its precision toward the end as it surveys the last decades, its haunting, complex final passage is recompense enough. Overall, this debut is resplendently heartbreaking.
A moving novel of family, history and dreams deferred that captures the joys and pains of both sisterhood and romantic love.