The book covers a decade in the life of Eva Acton from 1939-1949. However, it moves back and forth into the past and future, often extending and confusing the timeline for the reader. The story is set in the time frame of Hitler’s ascent to power in Europe, a time when America’s fear of foreigners and the danger they might present, in a time of war, was coming to the forefront.
When Eva was 12 years old, she learned that her father’s second wife, Charlotte, had died. Her mom, Hazel, packed her up and brought her to his house and left her there. Once abandoned by her father, Edgar, she was now to be abandoned by her mother. However, in the process, she gained an older sister, Iris, who was to change her life. Her father introduced her as his niece but told Iris that Eva was now her younger sibling. They grew very close.
Iris was an aspiring actress. When Iris graduated from High School, she and Eva ran away to California so Iris could seek stardom. Eva, although very bright, never completed her own formal education. She spent most of her time catering to Iris’s needs as Iris became an up and coming actress. Iris’s innocence and naivete, coupled with her confused understanding of her own sexuality, led to an incident that eventually proved disastrous to her career. Remember, this was in the 40’s, not today when it is more acceptable to have alternate lifestyles.
A homosexual, make-up artist to the stars, named Francisco Diego, befriended Eva and her sister, and taking them under his wing, he drives them across country with their father, to resettle in New York. Through the contacts of his relatives, Francisco is able to get them jobs working in the wealthy Torelli household in Great Neck. Edgar becomes a butler and Iris is a governess. Eva helps out in the Brooklyn beauty salon run by Edgar’s relatives. She develops a business reading Tarot cards.
Edgar falls in love with Clara, a woman of color who performs at a jazz club, and Iris falls in love with Reenie, the cook in the Torelli’s home. The Torellis are portrayed as nice people who seem a bit unaffected by real life and who simply take their affluent lifestyle for granted. Reenie, the cook, is married to Gus Heitmann, a German, and Iris secretly devises a plan to get rid of him so she can be with Reenie. When he is deported to Germany, Reenie moves in with Edgar, Eva and Iris. Reenie wants a child and now fears she will not have one. Iris and Eva manage to attract a child from the Jewish orphanage, and without further thinking about the consequences, they take him home to live with them. Danny attaches himself to Reenie who becomes his mother.
When tragedy strikes, the book takes off in several directions. I was hard pressed to figure out “what it wanted to be when it grew up!” Eva’s father’s history is revealed. He is not who he has pretended to be for all her life. She discovers that Danny is not an only child. Her sister, injured and recovering in England, begins to write to Eva and these letters as well as letters from Gus, who also morphs into many different personalities and people, over the years, are expertly interwoven into the narrative.
The Jewish theme appears, almost out of the blue, and although there are painful scenes, there is a good deal of humor as well. The author tackles religion, race, sexuality and economics with honesty and cynicism as these topics relate to human nature. Somehow, although the characters are not stellar human beings who behave admirably, the author manages to make them sympathetic and likeable.
In the end, although it was not a book that I felt I could not put down, it was also not a book I could walk away from, and when I finished it, I was glad I had read it. It certainly engages the reader with all the different tangents it follows. Often it forces the reader to suspend disbelief. Yet it takes the characters to completion. They are fully formed, and although there are some unanswered questions when it concludes, most of the ends are tied up neatly for all of them. It almost feels like a very imaginative fable, a comic-tragedy about dysfunctional characters that manage to overcome all adversity through cunning, even unethical means, as they succeed and find love and happiness against all odds.
Still, I was not sure what the ultimate message of the author was meant to be and I will be left pondering that thought for awhile. Perhaps the fact that it makes you think is what really makes this book an interesting read.