I don’t think there is a family on the planet that hasn’t experienced some devastation or other: illness, betrayal, deception, loss. (And sometimes, sadly, all at once.) But some of us fight the undertow and rise above those waves–and some of us are caught in the rip current and end up alone, far from where we began. It’s the secrets we keep that are the most destructive force of all, I think; they’e either powerful forces that pull us under or daunting waves that lift us up … and over.
The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman is the story of two brothers, Abe, kind and jovial, and Mort, dour and reserved. Even though the brothers owned and ran the family business together, it wasn’t clear whether or not they even liked each other. The brothers lived in a two-family house, one above the other. Their wives Helen and Rose were fast friends–like sisters, they were. Abe had four sons, and Mort had three daughters. The house was lively and filled with love. Until it wasn’t.
After the birth of their last babies–born on the same night in the throws of a blizzard, attended only by a midwife–tensions between the wives grew. Why, no one knew. Abe and Helen finally had a daughter, and Mort and Rose, their longed-for son. But the wives had a secret, one born of discontent. So Rose became jealous of Helen, and Helen mourned when Rose could not. Abe and Mort had even less to say to each other, and finally, the families spun out and out, separated by what they did not know.
Love and Other Consolation Prizes opens with Ernest Young walking the grounds of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, unsettled by his wife Gracie’s fall into madness, trying to make sense of the loss of their family home to an urban renewal project. They had lived a good life until the past year. But Ernest and Gracie had secrets, too.
Young Ernest came from China, sold by his starving mother to a ship captain bound for America. Both, so the sales pitch went, would have a chance at a better life. On the ship Ernest, still Yung then, met Fahn, a girl from Japan who would change his life. Yung spent his first years in America at the Washington State Children’s home before he was auctioned off in a raffle at the 1902 World’s Fair. The woman who rescued Yung, Madame Flora, owned a brothel. But it was in her home that he learned the true meaning of family … and fell in love.
Ernest’s secret is threatened when his daughter JuJu, an aspiring journalist, puts two and two together after finding an old newspaper clipping about a boy raffled off at the 1909 World’s Fair. JuJu has taken Gracie in after the couple lost their home. Her fragile mental condition is threatened by Ernest, and she is often agitate in his presence. Because Gracie has a secret, too, and it’s best she be kept as calm as possible, so her mad raving doesn’t give it away. For dignity’s sake, the doctor who treats her make-believes the illness is a form of viral meningitis . But Gracie’s madness was caused by neurosyphilis, contracted from her days in the Water Trade. Ernest met Gracie at Madame Flora’s.
It’s only when Ernest and Gracie’s secret comes to light that they can both put their demons to rest, and get back to the business of loving each other.
As it should be.
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