Cutler’s debut novel explores friendship, gender roles and other issues in 1930s Long Island, N.Y.
In 1929, Edith and Reuben Merkal and their children are living in Bliss—literally. “Bliss” is the name of the Long Island home that Reuben built for Edith upon their marriage. The Merkals are well-to-do; Reuben owns his own construction business and sells beach bungalows to city folk who want second homes on Long Island. The Merkals identify as Jewish, differentiating themselves from their WASP neighbors and making them victims of snide anti-Semitic remarks. When the stock market crashes in 1929 and the Great Depression sets in, the Merkals become casualties of the times, losing nearly everything. They blame the market, they blame themselves—and then they blame each other. When Edith becomes a salesgirl in a local shop (and the primary breadwinner), the dynamics of the family shift, and each member does a great deal of soul-searching. Although some details and plotlines may require readers to suspend disbelief (such as Reuben’s best friend Adolph’s strict vegetarianism, rare in the 1930s), Cutler makes the characters the soul of her work. For example, as Edith recognizes her growing financial independence, she quickly evolves into a latter-day Emma Bovary, blatantly breaking society’s “rules” without much thought to those around her. She becomes the story’s least likable character, self-centered and all too aware of her traditional beauty. But Reuben is the perfect foil, as he balances his self-reflection with the needs of his mother, his children and his friend. Reuben’s self-analysis regarding his nearly abandoned religion is perhaps the finest facet of the book—his deeply personal journey highlights the universal feeling of wanting to belong. Although each member of the Merkal family may not end up where they started (or where they intended), their journeys are a delight.
A well-told tale of family, religion and the American dream.