I can't think of a book that has more wittily and movingly encapsulated the years from 1939 to 1949, covering both World War II and the periods just before and after, than Amy Bloom's "Lucky Us."
This richly textured, pitch-perfect flashback had me desperately wanting to somehow contact deceased relatives who lived through that time and quiz them -- and if you've still got such relatives living, you'll be planning a family reunion, posthaste.
The book's protagonist, Eva Acton, might be able to help me with that past-life-connection thing. At least so she'd have you believe during her years as a fake psychic tarot-card reader; she's also a thief. And mind you, Eva's the relatively subdued of the two sisters who form the heart of "Lucky Us," and what a grandly beating heart.
"My father's wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us," Bloom starts the story. Once in Ohio, before 12-year-old Eva has even been properly introduced to her half-sister, 16-year-old Iris, Mom has left Eva's suitcase on the front steps and driven away.
A tighter bond
The sisters form a tenuous bond that strengthens when they hit the road after Dad repeatedly absconds with Iris' "I'm gonna be a star" savings, her winnings and earnings from pageants, Lions Club speeches and such. They head to Hollywood, where Eva plays house while Iris sashays her way into the movie-studio system and its underground lesbian network. She attends a party where dessert is "a pretty girl with whipped cream and strawberries, laid in thick waves, from her chest to her feet." Iris' lover betrays her, though, and her career sours as quickly as that whipped cream after midnight.
In her practical, unintentionally funny way, Eva tries to console her sis. "It's like I've got the plague," Iris complains when everyone avoids her. "It's like being Typhoid Mary." Eva reassures: "You're not actually killing people."
Along with Bloom, Laura Klynstra should also reap awards for "Lucky Us." I don't usually call out cover art, but in this case, it's just so sublimely perfect. Designed by Klynstra, it's based on the 2012 oil painting "Earthrise," by Deborah Van Auten, and features a lion (steadfast, load-bearing Eva) with a zebra (flamboyant, flighty Iris) perched atop it as the lion walks a tightrope above a stage.
A balancing act
It's an absolutely right-on metaphor for the balancing act the sisters star in through their teen and young adult years, as they deal with all the blessings and turmoils of their patched-together family, which include just about every subdivision of American society you can think of: gay and straight, black and white, immigrant, stolen child, even a nice-guy mechanic who gets sent to a U.S. internment camp for the dastardly act of having a German last name.
Go, Eva, go
Despite the often fraught, occasionally horrific circumstances Eva and Iris find themselves in, this is a book that's completely permeated with love, humor and kindness. Readers will root for virtually all of the characters but especially our Eva.
Your heart can't help but sing when Eva starts finding her own voice and way in the world: "I'd been wearing Iris's hand-me-downs for four years, badly, and had hardly noticed. Now I bought college-girl clothes and did my hair the way the college-girls did and I stuffed my bra. I had two pairs of new shoes. The pain in my chest, which I had had since the day I was left on the front porch, eased up. It wasn't grief. It was being broke and badly dressed, and now I wasn't."
Random House, $26, 256 pages