Is it possible to make a new life after unspeakable loss? Perhaps only for those who can speak about their losses, Jenna Blum suggests. Her new novel, “The Lost Family,'' begins 20 years after Holocaust survivor Peter Rashkin found refuge with his cousin Sol in America. Peter is still consumed with anguish and guilt over the wife and twin daughters who died because he failed to see the danger they were in.
In 1965, with Sol’s financial backing, Peter is the proprietor of a chic Manhattan restaurant, Masha’s, named after his late wife. He has resisted the eligible Jewish women Sol and wife Ruth have paraded by him, but he finds himself entranced by June Bouquet, a 25-year-old fashion model who comes into Masha’s one night and confides her determination to avoid having to return home to Minnesota “to marry some farmer.” Peter sees June as “the quintessence of [his] adopted country, his fresh American start,” a bohemian free spirit who won’t demand the emotional engagement he can’t offer.
Their romance unfolds amid enjoyable period detail, from Masha’s menus to June’s clothes, although there are occasional anachronisms such as June humming “New York New York” on route to a Thanksgiving dinner taking place 12 years before the song’s release. The dinner itself is a typical holiday get-together: surface good cheer, tensions seething underneath.
Peter is irritated by Sol’s insistence that he use suppliers who charge more because “they’re like family,” and he’s infuriated to discover that his cousin planted a gossip column item about his tragic personal story to boost the restaurant’s business.
He’s even more upset to learn that Ruth has revealed his life story to June, who has been having sex with Peter for a month but has never seen the scars on his back inflicted by a guard at Auschwitz or heard about his lost family. “It’s not you,” he tells her. “I won’t discuss them with anybody . . . I can’t.”
The author’s hand is overtly in evidence here, directing our attention to important plot points to be elaborated later. This schematic quality will become more of a problem in the novel’s second and third sections, but while Blum sticks to Peter’s perspective, “The Lost Family” is wrenching and sometimes chilling.
The most disturbing moment occurs after Peter finds out that Sol is using Masha’s as a front for illegal activities. His cousin contemptuously dismisses Peter’s reproaches as the idle words of a dreamer who refuses to see reality, just as he did in Nazi Germany. “Who could believe it?” Peter cries defensively. “[S]ome strutting idiot, this little fool, this bigoted madman screaming idiocies . . . It was unbelievable that anyone could believe such lies lies lies lies lies!” The contemporary allusion is no less discomfiting for being so broadly drawn.
The brushstrokes get broader after Blum jumps forward to 1975 and relocates the now-married couple to New Jersey, although the weight of Peter’s sorrow still provides some poignant moments. The perspective in this section is June’s; she’s stuck at 35 in the life she fled Minnesota to escape, painfully aware that “to complain about being a wife and mother to a man who’d lost a wife and daughters — it was unthinkable.”
She still loves Peter, but “his perennial absence,” emotional as well as physical, is increasingly intolerable. Blum sensitively sketches June’s frustration, then fills in the outline with familiar tropes: the daughter who loves daddy best, the feminist consciousness-raising group, the infidelity with a sexy tennis pro at the country club — who turns out to be a Vietnam vet with PTSD. The plot twist that scuttles June’s hopes for freedom feels predictable, as is the section’s closing declaration: “She would never depend on another man, ever again.”
None of this is unbelievable, necessarily, but it’s unsatisfying because it’s so unsurprising. Nor is it a surprise, when we rejoin the dysfunctional Rashkins in 1985, to find June a chain-smoking real-estate agent, with the now-retired Peter assuming the role of the long-suffering (though hardly silent) husband of a spouse who works all the time. Their 15-year-old daughter, Elsbeth, is overweight, soon to be bulimic, and infatuated with a bad-boy photographer.
This over-determined build-up muffles the impact of the potentially moving final scene, which tentatively promises a fresh start after decades of repression and denial. As she demonstrated in her two previous novels, “Those Who Save Us” and “The Stormchasers,” Blum is an ambitious writer who likes to tackle serious subjects, as she does here. While there are parts of the book that are undeniably compelling, stumbles in execution prevent this new work from really taking off and soaring.
THE LOST FAMILY
By Jenna Blum
Harper, 432 pp., $27.99
The Boston Globe may earn a portion of sales from products that are purchased through our site as part of our Affiliate Partnerships with retailers.Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post.