The Lost Family
Harper Collins, 2018: 432 pp.
This review appeared in the 31st edition of The Briar Cliff Review.
Jenna Blum’s third novel is full of ghosts. On the cover, we are greeted by a woman, elegant and colorless but for her rich red dress, whose face disappears beyond the page. It is a face we will spend the next four hundred plus pages searching for.
The novel, told in three parts, begins in 1965 with Peter Rashkin, a moderately successful restauranteur in New York’s Upper East Side. Peter, left widowed and childless by the holocaust, is immediately rich, complex, and somehow familiar. The sense of familiarity soon clicked, when I revisited Blum’s novella,“The Lucky One,” which was collected in the post-war anthology, Grand Central.
Here we first meet Peter, newly immigrated, stumbling through the world in a fog of grief. The story opens on Peter bussing tables in Grand Central’s Oyster Bar, and being dumbfounded by a woman who looks astonishingly like his mother, who died of pneumonia before the war. She is described as an elegant woman in a rose-colored dress, wearing pearls and a fur stole. Could it be that the faceless woman on the cover of The Lost Family, decked in red dress and
pearls with her arm draped protectively over a fur stole, is yet another doppelganger? A ghost? Or is she some amalgamated representation of all the women Peter Rashkin has lost?
The Peter Rashkin of 1945 is deemed lucky to have suffered “little permanent damage;” however, the Peter who we come to know in 1965 is still riddled with scars from the war and the loss of his wife Masha and twin daughters,V ivi and Gigi. It is in his restaurant, which is named for his dead wife, that he meets June Bouquet, a tall, striking beauty, whose passion and energy seem just the thing to drive away the shades that hang over Peter. After their first meeting, Blum writes,
The oddest thing of all about this night was that for the first time in a long time, much farther back than he allowed himself to remember, Peter felt regretful about having let someone go.
In the coming pages, the details of Peter’s trauma and the loss of his wife and children is slowly and masterfully revealed, as he falls in love with a woman who, with her fair hair, visible ribs, and protruding cheekbones, could be the grown-up doppelganger of the daughters he lost two decades before.
Part two of Blum’s novel takes us deeper into the character of June Bouquet, who, ten years into her marriage to Peter, is unfulfilled and casting about for connection and meaning.
The details of time and place – suburban New Jersey in the mid-seventies – are deftly and vividly rendered. We get to know June, a reluctant mother and unhappy homemaker, who, unable to compete with the ghosts of Peter’s first wife and daughters for his affection, seeks out affection elsewhere.
Here again, we find a nod to Blum’s earlier work. June takes her daughter Elspeth to visit her hometown of New Heidelberg, Minnesota, which we recognize as the setting of her previous novels, Stormchasers and Those Who Save Us. There is even a brief mention of a beautiful German war bride who lives on the edge of town, who can be none other than Anna Schlemmer, whom we first met in a short story published in volume 13 of the Briar Cliff Review.
In the third and final section of the book, Blum pulls us forward into 1985, where Elspeth, the now teenaged daughter of Peter and June, is struggling with inherited trauma. Her father still sees her as his cherubic little girl, perhaps frozen in his mind at the same age his twin daughters were when he last held them, while her mother endlessly needles and criticizes her about her weight. Elspeth did not inherit her mother’s fashion model looks, but bears a remarkable resemblance to Peter’s mother, Rivka; yet another long dead ghost, keeping Peter tethered to the past.
With Elspeth, the simmering tension between past and present, between June and Masha, between bounty and starvation comes to a head. Between eating disorders, self-destructive behavior, and an infatuation with an older man, Peter is faced with the loss of yet another child, while the growing distance between himself and June threatens the loss of his wife as well.
The messy and turbulent world of New York in the mid-eighties is the perfect backdrop for this plotline, set against shopping malls, bohemian yuppies, punk rock aesthetics, and the Reagan-era war on pornography, with Elspeth, more naïve than she would ever admit, right in the thick of it. Elspeth’s world is uncomfortable and dangerous, which gives the reader a sense of immediacy and mounting unease as we approach the final pages of the book.
Much like a real family crisis, this one isn’t resolved with a tidy bow. The epilogue takes us back to Peter, reckoning once again with catastrophic loss. But here, forty years after the trauma that has shaped his life, we see him finally begin to confront it. Here again, this novel beautifully reflects reality: the pain of loss cannot be vanquished. Its ghosts return again and again. Grief is a constant companion, demanding to be acknowledged.