Friday, August 19, 2016

Anna Solomon's Leaving Lucy Pear, about a child and two mothers in 1920s New England

In 1927, Lucy Pear Murphy is nearly ten, a kind and strong-willed girl whose black hair and dark eyes mark her as a misfit in her family. Her unusual name reflects the secret circumstances behind her upbringing.

A decade earlier, late one night on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, her desperate birth mother, 18-year-old Beatrice Haven, had left her in her uncle’s pear orchard for Irish poachers to find and raise, and Emma Murphy had absorbed the newborn into her large clan. The two women’s stories become entwined again thanks to aspiring politician (and rum-runner) Josiah Story, a local quarry owner who doesn’t know of their shared past but has his own motives for bringing them together.

His act has profound implications for all involved, including Lucy herself.

Leaving Lucy Pear works extremely well on multiple levels. The setting of Prohibition-era New England gently permeates the novel, with its firm social barriers, temperance ladies pushing their views, and everyone riled up by the Sacco and Vanzetti trial verdict. But the real highlights are its characters and the author’s clear empathy for them.

Although they’re not much alike, Beatrice and Emma are products and victims of their time, and both find themselves trapped in unhealthy patterns. Daughter of a prominent Jewish family, Beatrice, a talented pianist who dropped out of Radcliffe, now devotes herself to social causes and caring for her invalid uncle. Emma, a loving mother of nine, risks losing her reputation when she begins an affair with Josiah. With delicate precision, Solomon illustrates their desires and fears, both voiced and unvoiced.

Although her prose has a melancholy tone in places, it doesn’t succumb to it. With greater knowledge of ourselves and one another, she intimates, we can discover where we best belong – and can start anew.

Leaving Lucy Pear was published by Viking in July (hb, $26, 336pp).  This review was first published in August's Historical Novels Review.  This is the author's second novel, after The Little Bride, which I haven't read, but it also features Jewish American characters.

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