Amy Bloom follows the twists of hope and desire in ‘Lucky Us’
Franklin Roosevelt might have put it best: “I think we consider too much the good luck of the early bird, and not enough the bad luck of the early worm.” In Amy Bloom’s new novel, “Lucky Us,” good luck and bad go hand in hand, as two teenaged half-sisters crisscross the country during WWII, in search of a lucky break. Roosevelt’s fireside chats fill the airways, and tunes like “Pennies from Heaven” provide the radio soundtrack to their travels. Each chapter heading is a song title from the ’30s or ’40s.
In “Lucky Us,” Bloom tells an American story, peopled by ambitious outsiders trying to make their way in a changing landscape. Fueled by their self-deception as much as self-invention, the book doesn’t pull punches, but instead captures our relentless desire to rise above. It’s literary candy of the best stripe: sweet, salty, tart. Damaging yet desirable, it leaves you wanting one more bite.
Bloom specializes in the unflinching acceptance of marginal characters. She celebrates them with a fierce joy that reminds us how close to the edge we all stray. In that vein, along with three celebrated collections of short stories and two other novels—including “Away,” which was nominated for the National Book Award—she wrote “Normal,” a work of nonfiction that explores the variations of sex and gender that define our intimate lives, and “Little Sweet Potato,” a children’s book that honors resilience and diversity. She is a student of human character, which makes sense in the context of her history as a psychotherapist.
Asked how her training has played into her fiction, she says, “I learned not to interrupt, to pay attention to what was said and how—and what was said before, and what was said after. I learned to make as few assumptions as possible, to recognize that people are in their nature complex. I don’t think you can be a good writer and a bad listener.”
The book’s plot is full of thwarted assumptions, and lucky and unlucky breaks of all kinds. When bookish, awkward, 12-year-old Eva is left by her mother on her father’s Ohio doorstep, his wealthy wife has just died, his pretense as a blue-blooded professor is wearing thin, and his talented, self-absorbed, older daughter, Iris, who Eva has never met, has her eyes on Hollywood. Eva counts herself lucky when Iris decides to head west in search of stardom and offers to takes her along, but the going gets tough when glamour bares its teeth and scandal takes hold.
Shut out of the movie industry and struggling to make ends meet, Iris and Eva head back east to the gentler mansions of Long Island, accompanied by their newly broke father, Edgar, and Iris’ gay Mexican makeup artist, Francisco Diego. There, Iris serves as governess to a wealthy Italian immigrant family, and falls in love with their beautiful cook, Reenie. Edgar is their butler, finding his soul mate in a black jazz singer named Clara. Reenie’s German husband, Gus, befriends Eva, just before he is deported back to Germany to face the brutal bombings of Dresden and Pforzheim.
Eva finds her strength while reading tarot cards at a Brooklyn beauty parlor, where she grants troubled patrons better futures than the ones they envision for themselves. Woven into the fabric is a Jewish orphan named Danny, a French psychic, and Francisco Diego’s lively sisters. Random tragedy blends with high comedy in scenes of exquisite surprise that gather like storm clouds and dissipate in bursts, the weight of war ever present on the margins. Much of the story is told from Eva’s invincible point of view, along with letters from her father, sister, Gus, and Danny, which provide a ringing chorus of hopes and regrets.
So, is it better to be lucky than smart? Sure, says Bloom. To a point.
“Luck is a roll of the dice and we are all subject to it,” she says. “Better to be lucky and smart, so you have a plan when the dice go against you—which they will sometimes.”
Amy Bloom will be appearing at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Wednesday, Aug. 6 at 7:30 p.m.; free. PHOTO: Beth Kelly