Books: Forever changed by tragedy

A Jewish family in Connecticut in 1948 struggles through life’s challenges.

At a cottage on the shore, a lifetime of secrets (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
At a cottage on the shore, a lifetime of secrets
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
As Close to Us As Breathing is a superb story about an extended Jewish family and how each member’s life turns out. It captures a generation long gone, one that lived decades before iPhones, Facebook and political correctness.
Elizabeth Poliner’s new novel skips across time in such a way that the reader already knows the outcome of each storyline before it occurs. The core of the book is set in the summer of 1948 and takes place around a beachfront summer cottage in Woodmont, Connecticut.
Three sisters – Ada, Vivie and Bec – inherited the cottage from their immigrant parents, Maksim and Risel Syrkin. Every summer, the sisters and their four children spend their days swimming, sailing and – for one particular cousin – reading books like Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and a fat biography of Abraham Lincoln.
Ada’s oppressive husband, Mort, and Vivie’s physically weak but intellectually vibrant and loving husband, Leo, spend their summer weekdays at home in Middletown, Connecticut, working in Leibritsky’s Department Store, the exceedingly male-dominated family business.
The tragedy that animates the novel is told on Page 1 but doesn’t actually happen until Page 312. By then, given Poliner’s way of weaving in and out of 1948, the reader has already been through the aftermath.
Much of the story is told from the perspective of Molly, one of the Leibritsky children who was 12 years old when tragedy struck. Through Molly’s retelling, the reader learns what happened to each of the family members, both before and after the accident.
Molly is a thoughtful observer, both of herself and of her family. In the way of contemplative 12-year-olds on the cusp of adulthood, Poliner gives Molly sophisticated insights into her identity and her role in the extended Leibritsky family.
“That’s when I sensed something I hadn’t before: that I needed them, that I couldn’t be me, the person only I spoke to, in a quiet patter in my head... I couldn’t be me, her, without them... For the moment it seemed I’d lost my boundaries, that I extended all the way into each of them.”
The Jewish observances of the extended Leibritsky family are full of contradictions.
Frustrated by the fact that the cottage is not ready for Shabbat dinner when he arrives one Friday afternoon, Ada’s husband, Mort, speaks like an Orthodox Jew.
“Ada, come on now. We can’t break the rules,” Mort argued, his voice stern. “We live by the law. That’s our job as Jews.
That’s what makes us Jews.”
The men regularly attend morning prayer services in a synagogue but make a ritual stop for non-kosher hot dogs on the drive up to the cottage every week. The family has Shabbat dinner every Friday, but the chicken that’s served has been “greased with butter.”
Ada, the most beautiful of the sisters, has an ugly hatred for the Irish and Italian families with whom they share the Connecticut shore. This prejudice against outsiders is a source of dramatic tension, playing out in two romantic relationships between members of the Leibritsky family and non-Jews.
Bec, who is unmarried through most of the novel, is planning to run away to New York with Tyler McMannus, her very Catholic, very married boss. McMannus is the love of her life, and their relationship is described with great tenderness.
Eighteen-year-old Howard has fallen for Megan O’Donnell, a young Irish neighbor gifted with numbers who works with him at the local produce stand. When she finds out about the bond between the two teens, Howard’s mother, Ada, chases after him in a panic, calling out again and again, “Not under my roof!” When his father, Mort, learns that Howard has been dating a non-Jewish girl, he appeals to Howard’s Jewish loyalty.
“You have responsibilities as a Jew. You can’t just drop them,” he said. “You can’t just go out into the wide world of America and pick anybody. For you it’s different.”
The story, set in 1948, just as the Jews of Europe were recovering from the Holocaust and the State of Israel was established, references a very minor character, cousin Reuben, who made aliya and is struggling to establish himself in the brand-new country.
The studious Nina has her own identity crisis during that angst-filled summer.
“I know something’s wrong with me.
Something’s terribly wrong with me. But I can’t tell you what.” As she cries, the reader has already been clued in to what’s different about Nina.
Ada and Mort’s relationship started out with hearts and flowers and more than a dash of betrayal. By the summer of 1948, the pair can barely tolerate each other.
Although he is the purported head of the family, Mort is clearly its least likable member. Even his own brother describes him as a bully.
The story is framed by the lifelong relationship between Molly and her aunt Bec, into whose hands the family business eventually falls. Under their dominion, “Leibritsky’s stopped having anything at all to do with men.”
As Close to Us As Breathing is a beautiful, complex, character-driven novel. In the author’s capable hands, every one of Poliner’s characters feels real. And, just as in reality, some of them succumb to life’s challenging circumstances. And some of them ultimately soar.