The latest novel by Jenna Blum, author of Those Who Save Us, is set decades after the Holocaust — but, like her first book, explores how its effects continue to be felt years later. The Lost Family follows three members of the Rashkin family: Peter; his second wife, June; and his daughter, Elsbeth. Blum demonstrates how Peter’s memories of World War II-era Germany, and his inability to confront and share that past with others, results in the upheaval of his new family in the U.S.
When the novel opens in the 1960s, Peter is an aloof but sought-after widower, the chef and owner of an acclaimed New York restaurant, Masha’s. Masha’s is named after Peter’s wife who, along with their two daughters, died in a concentration camp after being caught in a roundup. Peter was later imprisoned in Auschwitz himself. Food soon emerges as a symbol for emotional nourishment and connection. Peter and Masha first met while working in a kitchen together, and Peter’s American restaurant has become a refuge; he can’t emotionally or psychologically invest himself in anything else.
One night, a restaurant guest and model, June, captures Peter’s eye and then, surprisingly, his heart. June and Peter’s relationship is punctuated by Peter’s inability to open up and discuss his past or feelings; he promises June he’ll see an analyst, but never does. Unlike Peter, June (whom Peter mentally compares to Twiggy) carefully monitors her meals in order to keep her figure. This disconnect reflects larger differences between them. Although Peter is conflicted about making a commitment to June, he feels he can’t forgo a second chance at love, and eventually proposes to her.
The second part of the novel picks up five years later. June is living the life of a suburban, country-clubbing housewife with her young child, Elsbeth. Peter has opened a new restaurant nearby, which again takes up the majority of his time. His continued emotional reserve leads June to seek connection elsewhere; she attends women’s liberation meetings, makes new friends, and starts an intense affair. She wants a more meaningful life and longs to return to her successful modeling career, but Peter doesn’t want her to work.
In the 1980s, Elsbeth has become a self-conscious, overweight teen. June’s lack of maternal instinct, Peter’s new medical problems, and both parents’ self-involvement push precocious Elsbeth into modeling for an avant-garde, controversial photographer who is famous for his nude photos of children. Hoping for love and acceptance, she begins to purge in order to lose weight. In this portion of the book, Blum deftly tackles the difficult topics of bulimia and pornography. She also delves into family dysfunction more deeply. As a young child, Elsbeth was best able to relate to her father through their shared love of cooking; their bond becomes increasingly tenuous as Elsbeth deals with her own complex relationship with food.
Blum excels at capturing the atmosphere of each decade, including references to fashion, songs, advertisements, and TV shows, as well as larger-scale historic events. In particular, she displays an intimate knowledge of New York City life — graffiti, crime, art — which adds to the story’s realism. Blum skillfully weaves the themes of family obligations, loyalty, acceptance, marital infidelity, and absence throughout the narrative. While Peter’s “lost family” remains in the background of the story, one clearly sees how his first wife and daughters’ fate continues to have repercussions over years and even generations. This work of excellent and memorable storytelling demonstrates both the impossibility of overcoming certain traumas, and the necessity of facing them in order to make what progress one can.