Thursday, April 7, 2016

"As Close to Us as Breathing," by Elizabeth Poliner

Readers of this blog have probably figured out that I am easily enticed by family sagas. I just finished a novel that fits in this category: “As Close to Us as Breathing” (Little, Brown, 2016), by Elizabeth Poliner. The family in question is the Leibritskys, who have a cottage on the “Bagel Beach” (Jewish) section of the Woodmont, Connecticut shore. Three sisters have inherited the cottage from their parents, and love to see each other and bring their families there every summer. The women and children are there all week, and the men come on the weekends. The main part of the story happens in 1948, when ethnic and religious groups were still very separate. For example, when one teenaged Jewish character dates an Irish girl, he keeps it from his family because he knows they will consider the relationship completely unacceptable. The story roams back and forth in time, with much family history continuing until the early twenty-first century. The focal point of the story is a terribly tragic event affecting one member of the family and therefore all the family members. The consequences reverberate for years to come, and some changes are irrevocable. The portrayal of this family and this community at this time in history seems very authentic. And the portrayal of the tensions, connections, love, dissension, pain, and comfort associated with this specific family also seem on some level universal. That combination (the specific and the universal) is, of course, what makes the best literature. I admire the way the characters are drawn. I also am interested in the way the book reflects the lives of women during the early second half of the twentieth century. This novel manages to draw on the pleasures of the family novel, the beach novel, the (recent) history novel, the Jewish novel, and the thwarted-romance novel, yet (mostly) not get caught up in the clich├ęs of any of these.
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