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Laura Zigman’s ‘Small World’ is a love letter to a sisterhood forged through disability and death

Jennifer Dahbura for The Boston Globe

Joyce Mellishman lives in Cambridge in a lovely apartment inside a beautiful blue Victorian house. She has an engaging archivist job with EverMore, a company that digitizes photos and other memorabilia-related documents, helping people tell their family stories: “How We Got Here,” “How We Met,” “Our Home,” “Our Family Values.” (Sometimes Joyce — in a sly sleight-of-hand, with the kind of humorous, telling detail that “Small World” author Laura Zigman excels at — even embellishes those stories just a little.) Joyce is also obsessed with Small World, her local online message board; one of her favorite pastimes is crafting prose poems out of the community postings (a stray cat alert here, a lonely émigré reaching out there, and a handful of grammatical corrections along the way). That online haven, where Joyce is a lurker rather than a poster, is also a place of safety: “Small World is another world, an endless rabbit hole to disappear into and get lost in where no one can find me. It’s the perfect hiding place, even from myself. Especially from myself.”


Fairly freshly divorced and nearing the big five-oh, Joyce’s world is upended to a certain degree when her older sister, Lydia — also a recent divorcée — moves into Joyce’s cozy Cambridge nest with her after nearly three decades in Los Angeles. This living arrangement, supposedly a temporary matter, proves to be a real mixed bag: The sisterly companionship elements (shared takeout and binge-watching TV) bump resolutely up against unresolved tensions stemming from their thoroughly challenging childhood. While there’s an opportunity to reconnect, their relationship retains an edginess that neither one seems willing to address or alleviate. Still, as Joyce notes, “There are worse things than having your sister as your long-term roommate, even if we’re more Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’ than any of the ‘Little Women.’” But as time passes, those simmering sibling tensions take on a more combustible quality.

Because Joyce and Lydia, until they were 8 and 12, had a third sister, Eleanor, who was born with cerebral palsy. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, as Zigman so eloquently illustrates, parents with disabled children relied monumentally on themselves and the grassroots networks they created in order to care for their kids. Louise, Joyce, and Lydia’s formidable mother — “who didn’t graduate from college and barely knows how to boil an egg but never takes no for an answer” — was the determined, committed, and stubborn center of just such a group. Louise’s laser-sharp focus on Eleanor, her constant, resolute, and admirable push to compel the world to make more space for her disabled daughter, was just as fiercely aimed at “making administrators and people in power care about families other than their own.” But that same attentive focus also left Louise with a blind spot when it came to Joyce and Lydia: Louise was terrific at looking after Eleanor; she excelled at encouraging, nurturing, and supporting other parents. When it came to Joyce and Lydia? Not so much.


With interstitial episodes that comprise a narrative not unlike a legacy story that Joyce might capture as part of her EverMore work, Zigman weaves incisive, revealing glimpses into Joyce and Lydia’s early family life, their shared childhood that included both benign and active neglect. (“‘Unless Joyce and I were bleeding or dying,’” says Lydia at one point, “‘our problems — as bad as they might have been, or as bad as they might have seemed at the time — didn’t really matter. Because our problems weren’t as bad as our sister Eleanor’s.’”) This is no pity party, however. Zigman is terrific at melding heartbreaking situations with humorous, evocative details without once veering off into saccharine sentimentality. The Mellishman sisters’ story is alive with vibrant details of ‘70s fashions and “bowls of salted mixed nuts from vacuum-sealed cans”; perpetually brewing coffee with its Styrofoam cups and Coffee Mate accompaniments; shag carpets and wood-paneled dens; rice-paper ceiling light shades, fancy stereo systems, and Easy-Bake Ovens. I also loved Joyce’s straight-talking boss, Erin, and immediately fell for a kind-hearted summer camp owner, a friendly bear of a man sporting a Steppenwolf T-shirt, who has an uncomplicated knack — one that Louise simply lacked — for seamlessly including Joyce and Lydia in Eleanor’s world. That said, it is also to Zigman’s credit that we are privy to Louise’s clear-cut struggle as a mother, her utter refusal to give up in the face of real adversity.


In a tale that’s partly about fraught and ruptured relationships, Zigman’s ability to elicit the transformative magic that happens when people find true connection with others makes these pages glow. “Small World,” a novel with distinctly autobiographical elements that Zigman has written about before and makes abundantly clear in her acknowledgment pages, is, in my mind, a brave and marvelous love letter to her two sisters, one living, one dead. In fact, the Zigman sisters bookend the novel: “Small World” is dedicated to Sheryl Anne Zigman, who passed away in 1965; Linda gets the final words in Zigman’s acknowledgments. In perhaps the kindest message of love — just one among the multitudes that this book carries — is Linda’s response when Zigman told her she was going to tackle this story: “I trust you.”



By Laura Zigman

Ecco, 304 pages, $27.99

Daneet Steffens is a journalist and critic. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @daneetsteffens.