What makes us who we are? What lives could we have led if we had made different choices? Set in the raucous Prohibition era on the New England coast, against the backdrop of the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti trial and the divide between Jews and Christians, the gorgeously moving new novel by Anna Solomon, “Leaving Lucy Pear,’’ is a dazzling exploration of the impact of roads untaken on motherhood, class, and gender.
The story begins with Bea, an 18-year-old gifted pianist and daughter of a wealthy Jewish industrialist. Her whole life has been based on family expectations: She will go to Radcliffe, marry well, and bear beautiful children, hopefully with Julian, the well-to-do young Harvard man she loves. But then, one night (and the extraordinary meaning of this night is hidden from us until the end of the book), Bea has an encounter with a soldier and soon finds herself pregnant. Julian is no longer an option.
Her family arranges for the baby to go to an orphanage, but instead, Bea, telling no one, leaves the infant under a pear tree in the family’s Cape Ann orchard. She knows poor Irish people sneak onto the property to steal the pears, and she hopes that one of them will take and raise her child. And indeed, Emma, a Catholic mother with nine children and a brutish fisherman husband, Roland, does exactly that, naming the baby Lucy Pear.
Bea is overcome with grief. She gives up school and playing the piano, becomes a Prohibition leader fighting for women’s rights, and marries Albert, who has little or no interest in her because he’s busy hiding his yearning for men. And then, a decade later, in a brilliant fast forward, Bea’s life and Emma’s collide.
Emma has her own secrets. She’s become the mistress of Josiah Story, a married politician and manager of the stone quarry where Emma’s boys work (along with Lucy, who hides her gender beneath her brother’s clothing). Josiah is desperate to be mayor, but he needs the women’s vote to secure it and plots to get Bea’s support. He works it out so that Emma gets the task of caring for Bea’s ailing Uncle Ira, which will allow her to gather useful information and put in as many good words for him as possible. As the women get to know each other, it’s only a matter of time before they each realize just what it means to be Lucy’s mother.
Solomon expertly works on a large, mesmerizing canvas, with an almost dizzying array of characters, each moving the terrific drama of the book. Lillian, Bea’s mother, unwittingly orchestrates some of Bea’s fall from public favor. There is an unsettling discovery about Roland, and Albert bears the weight of his complicity in a senseless death, making him realize he’s got to act on his desires. Solomon renders each character so exquisitely complex, they could be the heroes of their own novels.
The New England of the 1920s is just as contradictory and fascinating as the characters. The rich live among “towering walls of green” while the poor work in the quarry, where “the men coughed up dust and complained.” Prohibition is in full swing, and so are the temperance societies and rum runners, the scabs and the wealthy merchants. Religion and class are definite divides, no more so than in the devastating Sacco and Vanzetti case, where being an Italian immigrant is all the proof some need to send innocent men to the gas chamber. But there is a divide, too, among women, the ones like Susannah, Josiah’s wife, who yearn for children and can’t have them, the ones who have them and don’t want them, and the ones, like Lucy, who feel that the only way to be true to themselves may involve living as a boy.
It’s impossible to stop reading, because Solomon has made us care so much for all the characters, because she’s fashioned a world so real, you can taste the salt spray and smell the heady fragrance of the ripe pears. In the end, Solomon pushes her characters to question their choices about who they are and who they are meant to be. She investigates all these people who are in hiding, nudging them, so they finally venture out, blinking and surprised, into a light and a life they might deserve.
LEAVING LUCY PEAR
By Anna Solomon
Viking, 319 pp., $26Caroline Leavitt’s new novel “Cruel Beautiful World’’ will be published Oct. 4.