Books: Rash decisions

Lynda Cohen Loigman’s debut novel explores the deep secrets of a family in 1950s Brooklyn.

Brooklyn (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The personalities of Mort and Abe are about as different as brothers can be. Nonetheless, they both work at the family’s cardboard-box-manufacturing business and live, together with their wives and children, in a two-family house in Brooklyn.
Mort, husband to Rose, is an easy character to despise. In his great longing for a son, he all but ignores the daughters he has. As The Two-Family House – Lynda Cohen Loigman’s debut novel – unfolds, we learn that Mort gave up his education and career dreams to join his charismatic, but not wholly capable brother Abe, in the family business. It’s still hard to see Mort sympathetically. His office at the box company is a metaphor for his personality.
It’s unadorned, without as much as a second chair for a visitor. For much of the novel, Mort is taciturn and unpleasant.
It’s not hard to think of Mort’s wife as “poor Rose” for what she is forced to endure.
Eventually, it becomes clear that Rose has her own foibles of personality.
Abe and Helen live upstairs and are raising a small army of sons. Abe is a likable man, but it is clearly Helen who is the most competent adult in the two-family house.
As the novel opens, sisters-in-law Rose and Helen are the best of friends. They share everything, including due dates for their current pregnancies. Their babies arrive, on the very same night, in the midst of a Brooklyn blizzard. Mort and Abe are out of town and the snow makes it impossible to get to the hospital for the deliveries.
Both babies are born at home, with a midwife in attendance.
And that’s where the drama really starts.
It’s not hard for the discerning reader to guess the family secret that ultimately drives the two women apart. And perhaps that was Loigman’s intention all along. It creates a certain dramatic tension for the reader who knows the secret long before it’s revealed. At the same time, one might long for the secret to have been buried a little deeper in the prose, so that its revelation would have its own thrill.
Although the novel revolves around the secret, the book is really about the consequences of a decision made rashly. It’s the aftermath that really drives the novel.
Each chapter is written from the perspective of a different one of the main characters. This literary device adds richness to the story. It helps the reader see each character more sympathetically, as someone who faces his or her own challenges.
By the end of the book, even the odious Mort becomes more sympathetic, and the originally sympathetic Rose much less so.
The characters’ Jewish heritage is present, but far from central to the story. One of Abe and Helen’s sons has a bar mitzva in the book’s earliest chapters and there is a tragic Jewish funeral much later. Ironically, it is that death that gives the reader much more of a Jodi Picoult kind of surprise than the secret around which the story revolves. Aside from these touches, the Jewishness of the two families is hardly worth mentioning.
Where Loigman excels is in capturing the time period – 1950s Brooklyn. She draws gender roles accurately, even capturing the frustration of Mort and Rose’s eldest daughter, Judith, whose gender constrains her life choices.
Loigman nails the way family members, especially parents and children, inadvertently pierce one another with careless comments or subtle looks. As the story unfolds, we are reminded of how a split-second decision can reverberate for decades, even for generations.
The Two-Family House is an easy read, perfect for a long weekend or vacation.
The prose is clean and straightforward; the dialogue is simple. The emphasis is on the five main characters, whose lives and decisions impact on so many others.
The last few chapters cover a lot of time.
In that sense, they have a very different feel than the rest of the book. The ending seems rushed, and Johnny, an important character later in the story, is too thinly drawn for the importance of his role in the story. It’s a shame, because the real strength of Loigman’s debut effort is her characters, to whom you find your loyalty shifting as the story unfolds.