Although Hunger and Thirst is Daniela Kuper’s first novel, she is a talented short story writer. As do most first novels, this one includes some autobiographical reminiscing, in this case of her own childhood in Jewish Chicago in the ‘50s.
The characters Kuper creates are anything but mundane. Irwina, already past the age of 30, meets her soul-mate, Buddy Trout, at the Aragon Ballroom, where Jewish singles meet. They marry, and following Irwina’s dream of bringing designer clothing to the working-class women in the community, they open ‘The Frock Shop.’ There Irwina’s dream comes true: she can dress the neighborhood women in the creations of the designer world. Buddy, however, is more interested in just making money. The ambiance of the shop deteriorates from elegance to less than mediocrity as it parallels the unraveling of the Trout family.
All the ills of a family in turmoil come to the forefront. Joan, the 12-year-old daughter of Irwina and Buddy, sees her family being destroyed by the escalating rift as her parents’ hopes and dreams collide and spin off in opposite directions. Joan assumes the insurmountable task of healing this rift.
The “women-in-the-building” give humor and humanity to the major plot with their Friday night Kalooki card games in each other’s apartments. They discuss their lives (and everybody else’s) and compete for superiority in entertainment skills — but nobody can outdo Irwina, who serves caviar and champagne surrounded by fresh flowers. Chapters depicting the “women-in- the-building” might well stand alone as vignettes in a complete drama.
All the characters have hungers and thirsts that are never satisfied. These unrequited, never-achieved hopes and dreams give this endearing and revealing novel its universal underpinnings. Much of the dialogue reads like a script. The author’s unique style of recording the verbal interactions among the characters furthers her dramatic techniques. The story’s many humorous aspects recognize the eternal human condition, melding tragedy and comedy in the author’s rendition of a dysfunctional family in Jewish Chicago following World War II.