Lucky Us by Amy Bloom
- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (July 29, 2014)
“These were my people: the abandoned, the unloved, the phenomenally unlucky.”
– Lucky Us
Dysfunctional families provide excellent material for fiction, as illustrated by the plethora of enjoyable books written on this theme. It allows an author endless possibilities when he or she has no worries about keeping up the traditional conventions of “normal” families (then again, what constitutes normal, it could be argued). Recent examples include: The Family Fang (my interview with author Kevin Wilson is here), The Goldfinch and Swamplandia! (my review here), among many others. All three I’ve cited I have read and loved. They are quirky, darkly comic stories mixed with feelings of despair, often hopelessness, ultimately redeemed in unexpected ways, a relief after having ridden along through the many ups and downs of characters you’ve come to love, partly for their endearing oddities..
Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us is no exception. It takes off quickly, hitting the reader between the eyes early on when main character Eva finds out for the first time her father has always had another family, and that his wife has died. Following a short visit, she’s abandoned on his front porch by her mother. Standing with her suitcase, she watches her mother drive away with another man, while inside her father and step-sister Iris mourn the loss of her father’s legal wife. Poor Eva had no idea what was coming, and no option but to adjust to the tumult of what is her new life. Her mother is gone, and even at the young age of ten she knows full well she isn’t coming back. Mature for her age, she picked up signals from the fact she only saw her father on weekends. Still, the full truth never occurred to her; she had too little life experience to realize it was possible.
Fortunately for Eva, Iris turns out to be a mostly tolerant sister, though not always thrilled having Eva around – normal for a prima donna teenager who’s just learned her father, whom she’d adored, had a child with another woman. Eva’s father, somewhat a scam artist who affects a British accent, is kind to her, loving and supportive, though far from a saint. In the course of the book, the three will develop a very close bond, an unconventional family fiercely loyal to one another despite some extreme twists of fate, as well as questionable life choices, mostly made by Iris and her father.
An ambitious beauty, Iris learns early on to both her uncanny talent for nearly everything, as well as her willfulness, to enter contests: everything from writing essays to performing short acting skits. Once she discovers her father has pilfered all the cash she’s won through her own hard work, she packs up her little sister and moves to Hollywood, figuring the presence of a young girl will help her chances of garnering pity from strangers – which it does. She has no clear plan and no prospects, save strong confidence in herself resulting from the ease with which she’s skated through life on her looks, intelligence and street smarts.
Hollywood, though at first very good to her, isn’t kind for long. Once she’s photographed kissing another woman she’s shunned by a WWII era Hollywood intolerant of lascivious behavior. Serendipitously, kind strangers have a way of popping up to help and advise the girls, and their father responds to their call for help, coming to their rescue. The girls wind up in New York, taking their father and a burned-out, homosexual Hollywood makeup artist along with them . Each winds up bringing a range of talents to the table, embellished by the manipulative skills of Iris and Eva’s father. For once, his history as a scammer and genuinely intelligent former teacher serves them well.
“My father quoted everyone, from Shakespeare to Emerson, on the subject of destiny, and then he’d point out that except for the Greeks, everyone agreed: The stars do fuck-all for us; you must make your own way.”
As events unfold, fate and their determination ensure their survival. Yet more strangers take them under their wing, some becoming so close a part of the family they’re sucked into their vortex of oddity. For a while, events conspire in their favor until tragedy touches this odd and mismatched family. At this point, things take a much darker turn, breaking the extended family apart. Now it’s Eva who steps up to become the stronger sister, the one left to pick up the pieces of Iris’s shattered life, as well as those she took down with her. When it becomes necessary, Eva takes an unconventional job as a Tarot card reader in order to earn extra money. Despite feeling like a fraud, she’s able to justify it through the relief she’s bringing, the always hopeful readings giving her clients cause to put tragedy behind them and move on with their lives. A temporary career choice, the ever-resourceful Eva will go on to greater things, hardly a surprise.
Underlying the story are themes of familial love amongst a very motley and unlikely group of individuals, as well as instances of unconventional romance, running the gamut from heterosexual to homosexual to adultery. Bloom uses all these elements to highlight the strengths of the individual, the survival mechanism that kicks in when life deals unfair blows, and the determination to make the best of difficult, unforeseen situations, all the while trying like hell to keep these people together. The characters themselves are flawed but loveable, fully developed and sympathetic. There really is no antagonist save life itself and its unpredictable nature. A shorter novel, at 240 pages, it flies by all too quickly. There’s so much story, many more ups and downs to come. What I’ve shared barely scratches the surface of this delightfully layered novel, jam-packed with satisfyingly odd characters.
I’ve never read Bloom’s other works but having read Lucky Us I’m eager to. Her other books include: Come to Me, a National Book Award finalist; A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Love Invents Us; Away and Where the God of Love Hangs Out. She’s had pieces published in an ungodly number of literary and other journals, including The Atlantic Monthly, winning a National Magazine Award. She teaches writing at Wesleyan University.