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Originally published Sunday, July 27, 2014 at 6:05 AM

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‘Lucky Us:’ two sisters dance to the music of wartime

Amy Bloom’s “Lucky Us” follows two sisters and an ensemble of friends, family and hangers-on as they navigate the tumultuous decade of the 1940s. Bloom will discuss her book Aug. 4 at the Seattle Public Library.


Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Amy Bloom

The author of “Lucky Us” will appear at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 4, in the Microsoft Auditorium of the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave. Co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. Free (206-386-4636; spl.org).

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“Lucky Us”

by Amy Bloom

Random House, 238 pp., $26

“I looked for mothers the way drunks look for bars,” the narrator of Amy Bloom’s bittersweet, beguiling novel “Lucky Us” tells us. Eva, 12 years old when the book begins in 1939, is deposited at the Ohio home of her father and half-sister Iris (who looks at the newcomer “the way a cat looks at a dog”); her mother, seeing an opportunity, drives away without telling her daughter she’s going. Eva’s left with a neatly packed tweed suitcase — containing a few items of clothing and “my nicest hair ribbons,” not even a photograph — and a story to tell. Long afterward, hearing of the suitcase’s contents, a friend tells Eva, “She was saying to you, Look ahead, not behind.”

Sprawling across several continents and 10 years, “Lucky Us” is a coming-of-age story written in Technicolor. We follow the sisters as they run away from home and head for Hollywood as teens (the beautiful Iris is quite certain that stardom will find her; alas, notoriety does); make their way to wartime Long Island; create a makeshift but enduring family around them; and eventually part.

Starting early in the book, the chronology is interrupted by letters from Iris from overseas, reminiscing about her shared past with Eva. We don’t know for some time why romantic, impetuous, willful Iris is gone, but she’s the kind of character who’s nonetheless present on every page. Also writing to Eva, throughout the book: Gus, a German-American mechanic who “looked like he could carry you out of a burning building, and he looked like the kind of man who would go back in to get your poodle.” His journey, based on a lie, is a dark one; sent overseas, he sees the war’s horrors up close, and filters it, like a newsreel, to Eva in his letters.

Bloom, whose previous work includes the novels “Away” and “Love Invents Us” as well as three short-story collections, lets the music and color of the 1940s permeate the book. (Each chapter title is a vintage song title or lyric; you may find yourself humming “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” or “Pennies from Heaven,” or wondering how “You’re Not the Only Oyster In the Stew” goes.)

In a relatively small number of pages, she gracefully creates a bustling crowd of characters, many of whom might well star in a novel of their own: Clara Williams, a glamorous black jazz singer who can change her race through skillful makeup; Mrs. Vandor, the widow of a Hungarian nobleman whose chic East Brooklyn apartment was, for Eva, “to all the homes I’d seen, as Jackie Kennedy would be to all the previous first ladies”; Eva and Iris’s father Edgar, an English professor turned upstate butler; Francisco, a Hollywood makeup artist, who quickly comes to seem “like a part, a better part, of our little family.”

Nearly everyone we meet during these tumultuous years is adept at transforming themselves. Even young Eva, given the gift of an old pack of tarot cards “with green plaid on the back,” finds the means to change her life.

“Lucky Us” is a beautifully textured story of getting by and moving on; of a time when Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “plummy, patrician voice ... managed to be the voice of people who never spoke that way”; of creating a family from both the people you’re born to and the ones you find along the way. And, most of all, it’s a wickedly warmhearted tale of two very different sisters and their meandering paths through young adulthood; each finding, eventually, her own way home.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.



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