Amy Bloom’s newest novel may be set in the 1940s, but it feels brand new. The freshness starts with the main characters, two half-sisters who are the heroes of their own lives. Their funny, matter-of-fact refusal to be daunted by circumstances that would give rise to a lot of whining today — lack of money, lack of prospects, a post-war world with no clear social order — is refreshing and interesting.
But the other key characters assembled by Bloom are almost as beguiling, building on a theme of inclusion that permeates her work: a black jazz singer, a male Hollywood makeup artist, a German deportee and an orphan who becomes family along the way.
In Lucky Us, we follow Eva and Iris from their initial suspicion of each other — Eva’s mother dumps the girl on her father’s doorstep — through their developing affection as teens and into the real bonds of family. Impatient to experience the world, the young women journey from small-town Ohio to sun-drenched, glamorous California and then back east, to the old money of Long Island’s mansions. Buffeted by changes, big and small, they keep their eyes on the horizon, even after they are separated by an ocean, when one ventures off to Europe.
Bloom brings the era alive with all of its scrappiness and you-can-do-it spirit through the appealingly flawed half-sisters: Iris, the Hollywood star wannabe, and Eva, the sidekick who goes from shampoo girl to tarot card reader to psychic. This is a book of surprising depth that taps into a strong current of energy and possibility for those who have the gumption to keep going in the face of adversity.
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Down on their luck when Eva’s initially promising foray into Hollywood takes a sudden, public dive provoked by a gossip columnist, the broke girls are forced to turn unwillingly to the man who brought them together and then abandoned them: their father.
He proves to have an unexpected talent for reinvention — a very American theme — banding together with the two girls while simultaneously transforming himself into a butler to a Long Island family. His method of getting the job with zero experience? He studies up on “butlering” and, with a bit of creative license, impresses the family.
Bloom is clearly drawing parallels here between characters who transform themselves as the world demands it and a nation that faced a second world war and rose to the challenge. Her embrace of America and its people is evident in the optimism that Eva and Iris and their father, Edgar, display. When Iris turns from rising star to yesterday’s news, the women rely on a combination of friends, family and cheap macaroni-and-cheese to keep them going. Knocked down, they get back up.
Writing with grace and economy, Bloom allows her characters to take turns narrating, as each rides out the waves of change. Her literary restraint, which some might consider distancing, pays off when her characters encounter the awfulness of war. At those moments, she narrows the lens until we see only the one or two people involved, armed with their personal concerns and worries. The story is all the more effective for the reining in.
Lucky Us comes to a satisfying conclusion that reinforces the themes of family — the kind you create, not necessarily the kind you are born with — and optimism that a new day brings new opportunities. Bloom, an accomplished author who has worked those themes before in her work, including the novel Away, leaves us buoyant and a little surprised.
The title of the book — ironic comment though it may seem at first — turns out to be truer than we would have imagined. But it comes with a caveat. Luck, she says, depends on how you look at the world.
Amy Driscoll is a Miami Herald editor.