Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Review by W. R. Greer
Everyone has in mind the type of books they know will appeal to their reading tastes, and conversely, the books they're sure they won't like. If someone had described Three Daughters by Letty Cottin Pogrebin to me before I read it, I would have taken a pass on it. How could I, a gentile man in the mountains of New England, relate to a story about three Jewish half-sisters, daughters of a rabbi, in New York City? Add in the fact that the author is one of the founders of Ms. Magazine and one of the leaders of the feminist movement, and I would have been sure this book would not have been my cup of tea. Good literature, however, transcends gender, ethnic, and religious boundaries and Three Daughters does that admirably. This is a remarkable book that doesn't just invade your mind, but worms its way into your heart and soul.
The plot to the novel is simple, three sisters, one approaching 50 and the other two over 60, prepare for their rabbi father to return from Israel at the end of the last century to accept an award from the synagogue he led for thirty years. The story, though, is how each of these women came to their place in life, and the crisis that befalls each one of them during the year leading up to their father's visit.
Rachel is the oldest of the sisters, the daughter of Esther and Martin, but adopted by the rabbi, Sam Wasserman, when he married Esther. Rachel is married to Jeremy, a highly successful attorney whose income provides a comfortable life for her on Long Island. Always athletic and sexually exuberant, she accepts her role as wife of a successful man and mother to her children. Leah is the daughter of Sam and Dena, an unstable and mentally-ill woman. Leah is estranged from the rest of the family for fourteen years and returns a militant feminist with a lifelong grudge against her father. Shoshanna is the daughter of Sam and Esther, born after their marriage. She's a control freak, trying to control all the order in her life to ward off the Evil Eye that threatens to sweep down at any time and bring tragedy to her loved ones.
This is a family of secrets, and everyone has a secret and tragedy in their past. Sam and Esther didn't want his new congregation to know of their earlier divorces, so they moved back their wedding anniversary by fourteen years to make it seem that Rachel was their daughter. When Leah was with them, they introduced her as the "cousin from Cleveland" at the synagogue. Shoshanna was twelve before she knew that Rachel wasn't Sam's daughter and that Leah was, even though she'd never heard of Leah before. Leah's sons weren't fathered by her husband. Rachel was sexually abused at boarding school.
The story is told by all three women, much of it through remembrances of traumatic periods of their lives, their childhood together, and their memories of life with Sam and Esther before Esther died and Sam moved to Israel. Letty Cottin Pogrebin does a wonderful job detailing each of the women and getting us into their minds, understanding their fears, hopes, wants, and why they've become who they are. Each time they appear weak or foolish for the fears that haunt them or decisions they've made, our hearts warm at the love they hold for their families and the actions they take with deep affection. Ms. Pogrebin attains the ultimate goal of any novel, she makes her characters completely human and understandable. We ache with their pain, cringe at their flaws, cheer their minor victories, and hope they each find the right way to cope with their crises.
The most powerful sections of this book deal exclusively with each of the women. We crawl inside each of them and can follow their actions, thoughts, and reflections as if they were our own. When the women get together, especially at the family gatherings, the story loses its strength. Part of this is dialogue that doesn't quite ring true. The sisters constantly throw pithy quotes at each other, complete with attributions. Also, Ms. Pogrebin constantly shifts the point-of-view from one woman to the other and this jumping from one woman's thoughts to another, sometimes in reaction to the same event or dialogue, is jarring and kept me from being completely within one mindset.
Not only does this book get inside your heart, but it gets inside your mind. Leah is a leader in the feminist movement, much like the author, and her ranting sometimes come across as feminist diatribe, but other times hits you right in the gut and makes you think, "Yes, why does it have to be this way?" She sees Rachel as selling out the woman's movement, giving up her identity to be the wife of a successful lawyer. Shoshanna once shared her sister's feminist fervor, but finds she doesn't have the energy for it as she tries to keep a tight rein on her own life. Jewish faith and history play a strong part in the novel. Not only do the women try to find their place as women in a man's world, they try to find the place as Jews in a gentile world, and again, each in their own fashion. The book is full of Yiddish words and Jewish references and traditions, most of which I was unaware. That didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book, but served to fill a hole in my own ignorance.
The men in this book are secondary characters, from their father, Sam, to each of their husbands. We only learn about these men through the women's thoughts and recollections, so in that sense they remain incomplete. Even though background information is given to explain some of the men's motivations, it doesn't always connect with their actions. The exception here is Leah's husband, Leo, who ultimately gave up too much of himself to placate Leah. The scene where Leah finds Leo's paintings in his attic studio is the most poignant in the book, suddenly overflowing with the love of a father for his sons, a husband for his wife, and forces Leah to confront the choices she's made and the woman she's become.
At times I was in awe of this book, moved by the women and the way they navigated through the love, fear, and emotions of their worlds. Each of the women has been formed, not so much by their successes in life, but by the tragedies, trauma, and uncovered secrets of their past. As they each face their own new crisis, they realize they must reinvent themselves again, that they can't sail through life hoping to never change. It's a powerful message delivered by realistic women in a heartfelt and thoughtful novel. Perhaps the highest praise I can give this book is that when it was over, I wished I could sit down with Ms. Pogrebin and talk with her about it.
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