Fic­tion

The Lost Family

  • Review
By – March 29, 2018

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.

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has long coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Record­ingSec­re­tary. She cur­rent­ly holds the post of Pro­gram Coor­di­na­tor. She has vol­un­teered at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions