Amy Bloom is known for her arresting first lines, and the opening of her new novel, “Lucky Us,’’ is typically irresistible: “My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us . . . ‘It’s like this,’ she said. ‘Your father loves us more, but he’s got another family.’ ”
Twelve-year-old Eva had “seen [her] . . . father most Sundays and some Thursdays since [she] . . . was a baby”; charming and debonair, he’d sweep in with Hershey bars for her and Lucky Strikes for her mother, and they’d sit down to listen to FDR’s “Fireside Chats” whenever there was one scheduled. Now she discovers the reason behind his intermittent presence: He’d had another life and a wife she’d known nothing about.
She also learns that Edgar has another daughter, glamorous, imperious, 16-year-old Iris, a girl who “had a ton of things [Eva] didn’t have” and “looked like a movie star.” Adding to Eva’s feelings of insignificance and inferiority, her mother drops her off “like a bag of dirty laundry” at her father’s other house, and drives away, never to return.
Eva’s sense of abandonment is somewhat assuaged, however, by the gain of her charismatic, witty, and intensely ambitious half-sister. And a few years later, the sisters leave their “blithe, inscrutable, crooked father” and embark on a cross-country odyssey from Ohio to Hollywood, with Eva the loyal stagehand to Iris’s aspiring star.
Told through a series of first-person and close third-person accounts and epistolary communiques, Bloom places these two at the center of a character-driven saga, featuring a multiethnic, multicultural cast that sprawls an American decade, from 1939-1949.
Once in California, talented Iris quickly gets a contract with MGM, attends decadent show business parties, and lands some small roles, but an indiscreet dalliance with a beautiful starlet known as “America’s Sweetheart” puts her on Hollywood’s blacklist.
Fortunately, the sisters are befriended by Francisco, a kindly gay Mexican makeup artist, who procures jobs for them and their father, who has reinserted himself in their lives. Edgar becomes the butler and Iris the governess to the Torellis, a wealthy Italian family on Long Island, Eva a “maid-of-all-sorts at a beauty parlor.” During the cross-country drive, Edgar and Iris prepare by voraciously reading Emily Post; Eva’s role is to “sum up Shakespeare’s plays and recite crucial passages to Iris.”
Even as they memorize rules and store up the canon as cultural currency, the characters are living in a period when rules are being broken, identity is fluid, and traditional forms of authority dissolving. As Eva says of her, Francisco, Edgar, and Iris sleeping in a motel room together: “No one blinked at us. It was the war and people were showing up in all sorts of fatherless, motherless, husbandless combinations.”
Other characters find freedom in the permeability of identity, chief among them Clara Williams, a black lounge singer with vitiligo who is renewed by her improbable love affair with Edgar, and Gus Heitmann, a “man’s man” mechanic married to the Torelli’s cook: Deported to Germany under suspicion of being a spy, he first takes on the identity of a deceased comrade and then invents one out of whole cloth.
The discrepancy between appearance and reality — Eva reads “The Picture of Dorian Gray,’’ Edgar cites P.T. Barnum — pervades “Lucky Us.’’ So too does the yearning for happy endings: Eva makes “up sequels to the books [she’d ] . . . read,” including a “version of ‘Little Women,’ in which Beth doesn’t die,” and casts customers’ destinies positively as a popular tarot-card reader. Later, when Edgar is ill and delusional, he sometimes thinks Clara is “his third daughter,” declaring “I am the happy version of King Lear, a lucky man with three lovely daughters.”
Imagination’s power to reshape experience is all the more important because tragedy lurks everywhere. Characters die suddenly, senselessly, without warning, of brain tumors, in bombings, as the result of fires. People are abandoned as easily as dropping off “a very bulky package”; love affairs implode; cities are destroyed. “But “Lucky Us’s’’ resilient cast of characters and Bloom’s witty, expansive tone lend the novel a buoyancy and joyfulness.
Iris is the actress by profession, but all of “Lucky Us’s’’ main characters take on personas and reinvent themselves, repeatedly. It is a testament to Bloom’s penetrating and profoundly empathetic vision that even as her characters apply makeup and assume masks, they retain integrity, authenticity, a bedrock sense of identity that only makes their prevarications and pretensions, role-playing and masquerading more astonishing, admirable, poignant.
The novel’s title seems at first mordant, bitterly ironic — a young Eva considers her “people . . . the abandoned, the unloved, the phenomenally unlucky” and her life “[w]hatever the opposite of miraculous is.” But as the characters grow, reconnect, and make amends, by the novel’s end, the title can be read entirely straight. In the book’s gloriously benevolent final tableau, “rich and strange” and eminently Shakespearean, all is forgiven, love prevails, and good fortune abides.
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’