Megaseller Anita Diamant’s (“The Red Tent’’) ravishing new novel begins as a conversation. “Ava, sweetheart, if you ask me to talk about how I got to be the woman I am today, what do you think I’m going to say?” That indelible voice belongs to 85-year-old Addie Baum, who takes her favorite granddaughter, and all of us lucky readers, through her colorful lifetime, all the way back to 1915, to a tiny tenement apartment in the North End that she shares with her sisters Celia and Betty and her Russian immigrant parents.
Addie’s voice is whip-smart, warm, and full of feeling about everything from her early, terrible love affairs to her one great love. Looking back, she admits, “I also feel sorry for the girl I used to be. She was awfully hard on herself.” Life flows by. There are births — and tragic deaths. She learns to use a newfangled typewriter, takes a Shakespeare class, and reads everything she can. There’s the terrible flu epidemic, which wipes out whole neighborhoods. World War I ignites, and Addie rolls bandages and knits socks. The Great Depression ruins lives.
Swimming in all this history, Addie begins to grow a social conscience. When an unmarried friend of hers gets pregnant, Addie supports her — and learns about the highly controversial Margaret Sanger, abortion, and birth control. When she begins work at a newspaper, she learns to write and discovers an even larger world, including the plight of the “orphan train children,’’ abandoned kids sent to live with farm families. Many of them end up being treated as slaves rather than as the beloved new family members they were supposed to be. Inspired by the story, she takes a crusading stand at her job, with unexpected consequences. And in one of the novel’s most stunning scenes, Addie joins a group of women to come up with a solution for a friend who is suffering unspeakable domestic violence.
This is a novel about place, tracing Boston through the 20th century. Locals will love the references to Filene’s, Rockport, and the rumbling trolleys and famed cobblestone streets. And who could help but warm to Addie’s pride in being a Boston girl?
But primarily, “The Boston Girl’’ is about relationships, and the most poignant of all is that between Addie and her steely-hearted mother, Mameh. Old-fashioned and fearful of anything different, Mameh spits three times to ward off the “evil eye,’’ liberally hurls around nasty Yiddish phrases, and generally disapproves of everyone and everything, except perhaps her beloved middle daughter, Celia. Throughout her life, Addie pines for her mother’s love, respect, and acceptance, but her mother is furious with thoroughly modern Addie and sees all of Addie’s triumphs as the worst kind of affront. Addie’s Americanization threatens Mameh’s way of life. She believes that Addie is “a disappointment, a fool,” while Addie fumes: “Why does reading books give me a big head? Why don’t you ever ask what I’m reading?”
“If I wanted a change, I’d have to do it myself,” Addie realizes. And change she does, moving out of her family home (a scandal), and becoming a working woman (an even bigger scandal). Through it all, Addie views her life through a lens of humor. “Did you know there was a time before all Jews loved Chinese food?”she asks her granddaughter, and then goes on to describe her first time in a Chinese restaurant, a scene so vibrant, it sparkles with joy.
“Oh, Ava, there is so much sadness in this life,” Addie tells her granddaughter. But Addie also recounts the the incredible joys, too. There is the bond of lifelong friendship, (her girlhood friend, Filomena, always stays in touch.) Sisters grow closer and become more supportive. And love — deep, true love — sustains Addie.
Toward the end, the book begins to rush a bit. Events pile upon events. But then again, maybe it’s just that Addie’s company, her unique voice, is so deeply pleasurable, that you can’t help wanting to linger.Caroline Leavitt’s latest novel is “Is This Tomorrow.’’