Book Review: The Lost Family by Jenna Blum

Sol could talk all he wanted about how the world worked, but he was an American, and he would never know what it was like, how dumbfounding, how confusing, how paralyzing it was when it all went wrong, when the place you lived in your whole life, your city, your beloved country, abruptly and for no reason except the rants of a rabid fool, turned against you; when the place where you got your morning coffee and roll and had your haircut and smiled good-morning to the neighbors as they walk their dogs- when that place started ejecting you. Suddenly you were invisible, and the next day worse: you were despised, you were filthy, you were vermin, and you stared in astonishment at the erosion of your life, no more films, no more work, no freedom of movement, no citizenry, no home, and by the time your mind caught up with events, it was too late, and your government, friends, and neighbors were joyously hunting you down like dogs.
In The Lost Family we see the lives of a family touched by war, most often through their patriarch, Peter. His personal experiences influence the lives of his friends, partners and child in distinct and memorable ways. Through Peter, his lover turned wife, June and their daughter, Elsbeth we begin to understand the post-WWII generation and the trauma that is often passed from parent to child.
Peter is a concentration camp survivor turned restaurateur as a means to cope with his memories as well as the horrendous loss of his wife a two young daughters during the war. As a result, or as a means of escape, he throws everything he has into his business, quickly rising to the top of New York society and thereby attracting all the big names in the city in the 1960s. Through his success his is able to pay tribute to his first wife by using her recipes within the namesake restaurant, Masha’s, as well as find a sort of healing trough a new love. However, his past will always remain a part of him and this fact becomes a source of contention between him and this new love.
He had to put a stop to this… invasion of the past. It was June, he felt quite sure, June was the ticket, with her optimist’s innocence, her lack of appreciation of how bad things could get, her charm and youthful vigor-she was the quintessence of Peter’s adopted country, his fresh American start. Peter had waited long enough; it was time to take a confident step toward the future.
June Bouquet is a Midwestern girl turned fashion model whose marriage to Peter is fraught with unmet desire and discontent in the face of the ghost family he carries with him everywhere. Demoted to housewife after falling pregnant with their daughter, Elsbeth, and aging out of her modeling career, June struggles to find purpose.  This dissatisfaction manifests itself as criticisms toward her daughter, obsessively rearranging their family home, and, eventually, a consuming affair with her tennis instructor. Eventually, circumstance forces her to reflect upon her life and to determine how, or if, she is able to change it or herself.
“It’s true,” she said. “Ever since you were born, this is how you’ve been. More juice. More cookie. More than anyone else had, more than this place could give you. I always loved you for it, honey. Even when it took you away from me, all the way to New York, I never tried to stop you. Maybe I even spoiled you a little.”
“Probably you did,” said June, “for which I thank you.”
She was smiling, but Ida looked grave.
“It was fine when it was just you,” she said, “or even when it was you and Peter. But you’ve got Elsbeth to think about now, June Ann. It’s time you settle down. Life doesn’t always work out the way you want. You made your bed.”
She reached out and cupped June’s face with a hand that shook only a little.
“It’s time to grow up, honey,” she said.
Lastly, we are introduced to the teenage Elsbeth, and are able to understand how two people, each struggling with their own demons, are able to influence a child. In a manner of self-discovery and rebellion, Elsbeth agrees to be photographed by a renowned photographer she meets at a family party. This act of modeling further highlights her physical insecurities bought on by the judgements directed toward her appearance from her mother. Elsbeth slides easily into bulimia and into a one-sided obsession with her photographer companion. Through this downward spiral of their daughter, Peter and June are forced to reconcile their differences and their personal difficulties in order to save their family.
“Come on, Pete. Why are you making me say it? You know what the problem is. You know why you work so hard. It’s the only place you feel good, in your kitchen. Right? It’s where you shut everything out, pretend nothing bad ever happened. The war never happened. You never lost her. You never lost them.”
“That…is…enough!”
“No, I’m not finished. I think about them too, did you know that? I do. Those poor babies. And Masha. I wish I’d been able to meet her. I admire her. She must have been so brave….But the fact is, she’s gone. And you are too. There’s a part of you that’s not there at all. It shut down, or maybe it doesn’t even exist anymore. All I know is, you’re only half there.” June’s throat hurt. She put her hand on it. “And it’s really lonely.”

An absorbing, atmospheric story of a generation uniquely dealing with post-war assimilation and the ways these challenges permeate through the years, The Lost Family takes all the glamour and optimism of the 1960s America and contrasts it to the torment and despair of the previous decades while also looking forward to the tumultuous years of the 1970s and 1980s. This cross-generation approach is what helps to make the story so successful as Blum is able to draw on such a rich mixture of history and thereby craft a multidimensional story that evaluates the effects of loss and the healing power of love and family.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Harper Books

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