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The Book We're Talking About: 'Lucky Us' By Amy Bloom

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LUCKY US
Random House

Lucky Us
by Amy Bloom
Random House, $26.00
Publishes July 29, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think:
Amy Bloom’s latest novel, which spans the years shortly before and after the U.S.'s involvement in World War II, begins brusquely: “My father’s wife died.” Rather than mourning the loss of her wealthy, previously unknown family member, bookish young Eva and her opportunistic mother seize the chance to see how the tragic situation might benefit them. They put on their best outfits, borrow their neighbor’s car, and make a long trek to Chicago, where Eva reconnects with her father and meets her half-sister, Iris.

Upon entering her father and Iris’s world of crystal vases, stockings and pineapple upside-down cake, Eva sheds her past life with relative ease, setting off the chain reaction of constant reinvention that will define her youth.

After her mother disappears and her father -- a failed academic who flaunts his “quoting voice” whenever pertinent -- is caught rummaging through Iris’s belongings on more than one occasion, the sisters flee to Hollywood, where glib, glittering Iris pursues a Hollywood career and Eva bums around reading and cooking cheap meals. There, they meet Francisco Diego, a makeup artist who “dresses up for no one.” The sisters immediately take a liking to his no-nonsense attitude and plain kindness. But as soon as Iris’s imminent success becomes apparent, a scandal involving her starlet lover gets her blacklisted from the industry. The girls are forced to rejoin their pocket-picking father and relocate to Brooklyn, but, thankfully for them, Francisco tags along.

In New York, the clan cons a well-off Italian family into allowing them to serve as their house staff, cleaning, babysitting and educating their children. Iris’s romantic pursuits get her into trouble once again, as she falls for the glamorous, married cook, Reenie, who pines for a child. Meanwhile, Eva distracts Reenie’s husband, Gus, with whom she forms a lasting connection in spite of being pulled apart by war-related travesties. Eva earns her keep by reading tarot cards to customers at Francisco’s sisters’ hair salon, demonstrating her keen awareness of the ambitions of others and her desire to please, to tell people what they want to hear.

Bloom smartly punctuates these scenes, narrated by Eva, with letters Iris sends her years after the fact, remembering and misremembering the duo’s adventures. It’s clear that the two have become estranged, that Eva has finally snuffed their tumultuous relationship. We’re given a glimpse of Iris’s unsent letters, too, revealing the dissonance between her private and public personas, her true self and her constructed self.

Through Eva, Iris, their father, and the clan of characters they encounter, Bloom tells the quintessential American story, a story that may no longer be a viable one if set in the present-day United States. Each individual, whether kidnapped from a run-down orphanage only to be met with more dire circumstances, or interned for false accusations of Nazi affiliations, manage to make the most of their unfortunate circumstances, albeit often by way of shadier methods, à la Gatsby. But unlike Fitzgerald, Bloom coats her metamorphosis-spurred-by-ambition narrative in a good ol’ fashioned sheen of American optimism.

Her characters may feel bogged down my memories -- a woeful Iris writes, “Someone once said: God gave us memory, so we could have roses in December. Someone did not add, So we could have blizzards in June and food poisoning when there was nothing to eat” -- but they’re not borne back ceaselessly into the past. They do, eventually, exhibit the tenacity needed to move successfully forward.

What other reviewers think:
Los Angeles Times: "This is not realism, exactly, but something just a bit more heightened, in which naturalism blurs into fable, and the boundaries between reality and dream fade away."

The New York Times: "Ms. Bloom does not write deep-dish, straightforward yarns for readers who enjoy conventional drama. She writes sharp, sparsely beautiful scenes that excitingly defy expectation, and part of the pleasure of reading her is simply keeping up with her."

The Washington Post: "If America has a Victor Hugo, it is Amy Bloom, whose picaresque novels roam the world, plumb the human heart and send characters into wild roulettes of kismet and calamity."

Who wrote it?
Lucky Us is Amy Bloom's second novel. She's also written three short story collections, and has been nominated for both a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Who will read it?
Fans of historical fiction and those interested in life on the home front during World War II. Anyone who enjoys epistolary novels, as Bloom's is creatively arranged.

Opening lines:
"My father's wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.
She tapped my nose with her grapefruit spoon. "It's like this," she said. "Your father loves us more, but he's got another family, a wife and a girl a little older than you. Her family had all the money. Wipe your face."

Notable passage:
"I walked past the orphanage every day. I kept my eyes open for the tall blond boy. These were my people: the abandoned, the unloved, the phenomenally unlucky. Plus, they were Jews, and my age, and their cousins were being slaughtered every day in Europe. Germans could even come and invade and slaughter them here in Brooklyn. They, like me, must be worrying all the time. Sometimes I liked thinking about how brave I would be if I were facing Germans. I knew that it was disgusting to contemplate my own bravery, and, even worse, I knew the brave one would be Iris, flirting with the Nazis, stuffing passports into her bra to save the old people and the Jewish babies. I'd be sitting on some staircase somewhere, with my nose in a book, squeezing against the banister when they came running past me."

Rating, out of ten:
7. Through carefully arranged letters and quietly evocative scenes, Bloom weaves together a fresh take on our modern conception of the American dream. Still, the unfailing optimism of both the author and her characters seems, at times, artificial.

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