Reviewed by Victoria Best.
So begins this novel of chance and chancers with the first roll of the dice for Eva Logan, the adolescent protagonist, and her first step into mixed fortunes. It’s news to her that the father she sees once a week has been living all this time in small town Ohio with his legitimate family. Nor did she know about her older half-sister, the glamorous and ambitious Iris. What surprises her most of all is that her mother should abandon her on the doorstep, stealing away in the car they borrowed for the trip. It will take Eva most of the next decade to come to terms with that abandonment, which turns out to be her first step on a journey through accident and adventure. Lucky she may be, but her luck is more often bad than good.
Fortunately, Iris sees potential in her younger half-sibling, for Eva is smart and obedient and loyal, and Iris needs an ally against their unreliable father who keeps stealing the money she puts by to realise her dreams. Together, the sisters set out for Hollywood, where Iris feels pretty sure her drive and talent are going to make her famous. And things start well, until her first truly decadent Hollywood party; the champagne and the oysters and the naked women go to Iris’s head and she falls in love with another actress, Rose. The resulting scandal drop-kicks Iris and Eva across country with their dear friend, the make-up artist Francisco, and their reprobate father, who for personal reasons has found his former small town a little too hot for comfort and is determined to pitch along with them.
They make it cross-country to East Brooklyn – which Eva thinks is ‘like Mars’ – where the ramshackle family find employment with the Torellis, Iris as a governess, and Edgar, the father, as a butler, of all things. The Torellis dazzle Eva with their precious normality: ‘I believed that the Torellis, unlike my family, had souls, and their souls, if you’d hung them on the clothesline behind the carriage house, would have billowed bright white and sheer, smelling like sunshine.’ In the name of survival, our main protagonists reinvent themselves all over again. Iris falls in love with the cook, Reenie, and has to dream up ways to get rid of her husband, the good-natured Gus. Edgar finds love with a nightclub singer, Clara, who has a severe case of vitiligo and has to paint herself black before she performs and Eva, desperate to make some money, takes up tarot reading. It’s an appropriate activity in a narrative so tossed and torn by the winds of uncertain fortune:
‘If you’d asked me what I understood about fortune-telling, I would have told you that no one came to see someone like me because they were happy. I would have said, People come because they are so frightened, they wake up in a sweat. They look into the well of their true selves, and the consequences of being who they are, and they’re horrified. They run to my little table to have me say that what they see is not what will happen.’
We’re to understand that Eva’s relation to the tarot is purely commerical, not mystical. Eva sells a little hope, because people certainly need it. The Second World War is now raging, and America has been brought into the fighting. It won’t be long before the whole family is forced yet again to adapt and evolve because of accident and adventure. Edgar has an identity like an onion, peeling off skin after skin to reveal some new facet of his con-artist self. Iris’s selfishness leads her time and again into disaster until it almost destroys her. Gus, the most reliable character of them all is falsely and unjustly reported as a German spy and sent off on the most harrowing journey: detained in a camp for enemy aliens before being deported to Germany in time for the firebombing to start. And Eva – poor Eva – is simply struggling to find out who she is. ‘I looked for mothers the way drunks looked for bars,’ she confesses, but it seems her fate to have them taken away from her.
This is a story full of twists and turns, abrupt changes of fortune, utterly surprising developments and yet it manages to remain plausible and coherent as a narrative all the way through. I thought it was like a Candide for the 20th century as its characters live through an iconic but turbulent era. For despite the traumas and calamities, Amy Bloom has a very light touch, telling her story succinctly and in rich, gorgeous prose. The chapters are all headed with the names of popular songs: ‘Pennies from Heaven’. ‘You Made Me Love You’, ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’, which set up a kind of soothing soundtrack against the hard-scrabble life the protagonists endure. But there is love and kindness continually to be found in the most surprising of places, and for all the strangeness of Eva’s disparate family, the ties that bind them turn out to be made of strong stuff. This is an alternative history of a notorious age, an unorthodox story of love in its many forms and a delicate meditation on the human capacity to perform many different selves. Beautifully done.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books Editors.
Amy Bloom, Lucky Us (Granta, September 2014) 978-1847089366, 256 pages, paperback original.