Women Worth Knowing

The women in these books – real and fictional – seek understanding and self-realization on journeys that take us in fascinating directions.

by Sue Tomchin

Leaving Lucy Pear takes place on rocky Cape Ann, and in nearby Gloucester, Mass. (birthplace of author Anna Solomon), during the Prohibition Era 1920s. That’s where Beatrice Haven, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish industrialist, has gone to care for an ailing uncle. It’s also where ten years before she abandoned her out-of-wedlock infant daughter. Expected to give the infant to an orphanage so she could go on to study music and marry her fiancé, she instead leaves the baby under a tree in her uncle’s orchard. Emma Murphy, the mother of a large Irish Catholic family who has come there to pick pears, adopts the baby, dubbed Lucy Pear. Ten years later, none of Beatrice’s plans have come to fruition and her emotional life is in turmoil. Brought together by chance, Bea and Emma begin to build a strained friendship and ultimately to face the impact of their choices on themselves and the daughter they share.

The central events of As Close to Us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner, which came out earlier this year, take place in the late 1940s at Bagel Beach, a Jewish summer colony in Woodlawn, Conn. That’s where three sisters – Ada Vivie and Bec – have returned each summer since childhood, and now with their children and husbands. Poliner sensitively captures the blend of abiding love and old hurts characterizing sibling relationships; the constrictions of traditional female roles; and the pressure of family and religious expectations vs. personal desires. But all these feelings are pushed to the background when Davy, the youngest child of one of the sisters, is accidentally killed. The tragedy frays family ties and upends the lives of the characters, including that of the narrator, 12-year-old Molly, who witnesses the accident. Can Molly, draw from her Aunt Bec’s hard-won wisdom and free herself from the burden of grief and memory?

Though Mischling, the new novel by Affinity Konar, is set during the Holocaust, it is extraordinary for the beauty and lyricism of its language and its affecting, tender moments despite the horrific setting: the“Zoo,” the area in Auschwitz where Nazi physician Josef Mengele experimented on hundreds of sets of twins. This is a debut novel for Konor who was awed by the twins who survived and managed to grow up and lead meaningful lives. Many of the characters in the book are inspired by real characters. But how Konor tells the story is her own remarkable creation. The imaginative, resilient twins, Pearl and Stasha, so close they feel each other’s pain and finish each other’s sentences, relate their story in alternate chapters. With poignancy and poetry, Konor tells a heartrending, yet ultimately transcendent tale.

The lingering trauma of the Holocaust informs Flying Couch, a coming-of-age graphic memoir by Amy Kurzweil, a writer and artist whose comics have appeared in The New Yorker and The Huffington Post. Kurzweil interweaves her own quest for identity with the stories of her mother, a psychologist, and her grandmother, who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto by disguising herself as a gentile. Kurzweil’s drawings convey the multiple messages about being Jewish that she received from her early years onward. Between these and her family history, she feels anxious and burdened, yet by the memoir’s end, she is able to achieve a nuanced acceptance of who she is.

Elissa Altman’s compelling memoir, Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw, captures the contradictions and absurdities of a Queens childhood in which being Jewish co-existed with a longing for the forbidden and a desire for acceptance in the larger culture. Altman vividly conveys her family’s split personality: The religious bat mitzvahs followed by shrimp-in-lobster sauce lunches; her parents refusing to have a Christmas tree yet plunking her down on the lap of a department store Santa; and the Sunday morning bacon-and-egg breakfasts before visiting her observant grandparents. Altman struggles to find peace and meaning and her place in the world as her parents’ marriage disintegrates and drugs and sex pervade the society around her. Ultimately, she does finds love and acceptance, but not without a sense of loss for where she came from.

While she was president of student government at Hunter College in the late 1950s, Blanche Wiesen Cook met First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She has never forgotten that meeting and how the air felt charged with ER’s vibrancy. She conveys this energy in her definitive biography of a woman who fought for the principles of social justice even as the country and her husband were not prepared to adopt them. The third and concluding volume of the biography, Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3: The War Years and After, 1939-1962, is due out this fall. ER was fearless in taking on many of the issues that we still wrestle with today, including racism, economic security, immigration, and equality for women. While Cook says that FDR encouraged his wife’s independence, she shows how he silenced her when reasons of state intervened. This suppressed ER’s ability to make greater strides in two areas about which she cared deeply: Racial equality and the rescue of Jewish refugees from Hitler.

Lawyer-turned-author Author Marlene Trestman writes about another fearless woman who advocated for equality in Fair Labor Lawyer: The Remarkable Life of New Deal Attorney and Supreme Court Advocate Bessie Margolin. Raised in the Jewish Orphan’s Home in New Orleans, she received a strong early education and went on to attend college and law school. When she launched her legal career in 1930, only 2 percent of America’s attorneys were women, far fewer Jewish women. Known for her meticulous preparation and passion for her work, she argued cases before the Supreme Court 24 times, one of only three women in the 20th century to achieve this distinction. Her greatest accomplishments came in the realm of the enforcement of child labor laws, minimum wage and overtime protection of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In 1963, with the passage of the Equal Pay Act, she became an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and a founder of the National Organization for Women. Trestman, an attorney herself, has a special interest in her subject since she grew up in the successor to the orphanage in which Margolin was raised.