If you are contemplating further summer reading, here are three new books — all very different — that put the reader in unique moments from the past century.
Anna Solomon’s “Leaving Lucy Pear” begins in 1917, at a painful moment in the life of 18-year-old Bea Haven, daughter of a wealthy Boston Jewish family. She is at her uncle’s property on Massachusetts’ Cape Ann, where she secretly spent the last months of an unintended pregnancy. The plan is for her to give up the child to an orphanage, go on to Radcliffe College and pursue a career as a pianist. She opts instead to leave her infant daughter under a pear tree in her uncle’s orchard with the hope one of the people who regularly comes to steal fruit will take the baby.
The infant is picked up by Emma Murphy, an Irish immigrant who already has a full house of children. Emma names her Lucy Pear and raises the girl as her own, although, due to her distinctive physical appearance and proximity in age to another child in the household, there is no illusion that she is related biologically.
The novel advances a decade, as Bea returns to Cape Ann to look after her aging uncle and achieve a better state of mind. Haunted by her past choices, she is fragile and depressed. To complicate things, her marriage was a sham, as her husband turns out to be gay.
Emma is as tough as Bea is breakable. With her husband gone for much of the time at sea, she starts a business making alcoholic cider from pilfered pears. The money for the illegal operation is lent to her by Josiah Story, a bigwig in the town who runs a quarry and who initiates a sexual affair as part of the bargain.
Emma is quick to identify Bea as Lucy’s mother, while Bea is slower to recognize Emma’s identity. The inevitability of their confrontation creates tension throughout the book, as does the question of whether Lucy will reunite with her biological mother.
The family drama takes place against a well-painted historical backdrop that includes unrest surrounding the imminent execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian immigrant anarchists convicted of murder in Massachusetts. The book addresses many important issues of the 1920s — including homosexuality, mental illness, women’s rights, prohibition and child abuse. Especially palpable are the class divisions, revealed poignantly by a disaster that results from a particular exertion of upper-class privilege.
Set in Jerusalem in 1946 and narrated in economical prose, Stewart O’Nan’s “City of Secrets” is a low-key thriller enacted through the life of a damaged man. Brand is a Holocaust survivor from Latvia who, having lost his entire family, has immigrated illegally to British Mandate-era Palestine after the war. He has fallen in with an underground resistance cell, which has outfitted him with the taxi that provides his sustenance, and which is also used to support the cell’s strategic aims. He falls for Eva, a fellow survivor now serving the Haganah by working as a call girl to collect information from the British.
Brand struggles to grasp the landscape of underground activity happening under the leadership of the Haganah, Irgun and Stern Gang. As he takes part in a variety of operations, he achieves greater awareness and an awakened moral sense. And he becomes aware that he can trust nobody.
O’Nan successfully depicts a character struggling to negotiate a past and present that both entail pain. The chaos of the present moment may enable Brand to distract himself from the trauma of the immediate past, but he is being sucked into a scenario that carries its own potential for tragedy, loss and moral surrender.
Given events in our own time, reading about the Jewish resistance’s use of terror attacks — in particular, the Irgun’s 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel — can be difficult. How history regards this chapter in Israeli history remains a source of contention.
For people familiar with Jerusalem, one of the novel’s pleasures is watching Brand navigate the pre-partition city, some of which is unrecognizable from the present day — Brand drives past Old City landmarks that were razed two years later by the Jordanians — or areas that were once open to cars but are no longer so.
In stark contrast to the tension and misery in O’Nan’s novel, Australian author Joan London’s “The Golden Age” conveys optimism and empathy in a bleak situation. The core of the book takes place in 1954 Perth, where the Golds, a family of Jewish survivors from Hungary, have relocated after their effort to immigrate to the United States failed. Their 13-year-old son Frank has contracted polio and now resides at The Golden Age, a former pub that has been converted to a group home for children with the disease. The book tenderly explores the difficult lives of the patients — especially Frank and his love, Elsa — as well as the families and the workers.
London devotes special attention to Frank’s worldly parents, Meyer and Ida, as they attempt to adjust to an unfamiliar landscape across the planet from their vanished home, unsure whether this is their final destination. The narrator explains that for Meyer, “Budapest was the glamorous love of his life who had betrayed him. Perth was a flat-faced, wide-hipped country girl whom he’d been forced to take as a wife.” But Meyer and Ida come to value the land that took them in.
Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.