The Two-Family House
"Before today she [a midwife] she thought she had seen every
permutation of circumstance: the girls who cried out for their own
mothers even as they became mothers themselves; the older women who
had marked themselves as cursed, suddenly bursting with joy over a
healthy child come to them at last. She thought she had heard every
kind of sound a person could make, witnessed every expression the
human face could conjure out of pain, joy, or grief. That was what
she thought before this evening."
This paragraph lifted from the prologue of Lynda Cohen Loigman's
The Two-Family House beautifully sets the stage for the rest of the
book. It's a narrative that makes the reader captivated by the
interpersonal drama of ordinary human life. It's a story that any of
us enmeshed in the complexities and loyalties of the multigenerational
family can relate to if we look below the surface of our own lives.
Rose and Helen, married to brothers who are owners of a family
business, have lived intimately for many years as the book's pivotal
event unfolds. Upstairs in their shared duplex Helen and gregarious
Abe are parenting four spirited boys who seem to need their mother for
little more than cleaning up their messes. Downstairs Rose and the
far more reserved Mort are raising three girls--children who are a let
down to their father who wants a son to pass the business on to. (Of
course he wants his brother's children to join the firm--his, however,
would run the show.) Helen longs for the intimate relationship she
could have with a daughter; Rose thinks a son would make her husband
less impossible to please.
Unexpectedly both women become pregnant. The day they both go
into labor is much less than propitious. Mort and Abe are away on
business. Because of a raging blizzard no ambulances or taxis are
available. Luckily a midwife is the area. Side by side the women
give birth within minutes of each other.
Helen has her daughter, Rose her son. All should be well. But
in that stormy night something subtle begins to eat at the
relationship between the sisters-in-law much like one dropped stitch
can gradually unravel an afghan. The inexorable deterioration and its
effect on the family, told from the alternating viewpoints of major
characters makes for enthralling reading.
In my mind, Loigman's greatest strength is her show, don't tell
character development. I chose to close this review with a paragraph
each about Mort and Helen:
"After the news of Rose's pregnancy became public, Mort became
increasingly annoyed with his coworkers. Most of them seemed to think
he had nothing better to do with his time than to answer personal
questions about Rose's condition and their family life...it would be
so much easier to be nice to people if only they would stop talking to
"...The recipe box was the only part of her mother that Rose had
left. When her mother died, Rose didn't care about the jewelry. All
Rose really wanted was the box. Their mother rarely wore her earrings
or necklaces, but Rose knew she had opened the recipe box nearly every
day. To Rose, it was her mother's touchstone, and she was certain it
had absorbed a small part of her mother's essence..."
Now can't you just see them in your mind's eye?
On a personal note, I found myself reading this book at just the right
time. I was feeling overwhelmed with the losses (including a sense of
identity) involved in losing my place on school committee after 11
years in which I'd risen to chair and experiencing my last child to
home move to his first apartment. Somehow I was able to step back and
see the present from the larger perspective of my life to date...like
a sequence of treacherous rapids in a river. It was an epiphany that
I've handled challenges before. This one is no different.
A great big shout out goes out to all families who struggle with the
intricacies of intimacy.
Sent from my iPod