Fans of historical fiction ought to know about Lynda Cohen Loigman, the author of two nationally acclaimed novels, The Two-Family House and The Wartime Sisters. Her newest book, The Matchmaker’s Gift, maintains a historical approach but also takes on a contemporary lens. The chapters alternate between two narrators: Sara, a young immigrant woman who serves as a matchmaker on the Lower East Side around World War I; and her granddaughter, Abby, who works for a 1990s corporate law firm specializing in divorce. Together, their seemingly opponent professions and worldviews weave a fascinating narrative about the potential “gift” of matchmaking.
The plot employs some magical realism, encouraging readers to believe that Sara, even as a young child, is able to tell when two people are “intended” to join in marital bliss. Realists and cynics may resist this supernatural element and question if indeed these marriages remain happy. Helping to offset some of these concerns is the research that Loigman includes in her Author’s Notes. It appears that many of the famous couples discussed — such as the rival knish-making families and the Pickle Millionaire’s daughter — are based on real-life relationships forged by an Orthodox Jewish matchmaking-grandmother, documented in sources like the New York Times and in historical accounts of the Lower East Side.
These chapters simmer with vibrant detail. Readers familiar with Anzia Yezierska, Abraham Cahan, and even Jacob Riis will recognize the setting and characters that recall the early twentieth century Jewish immigrant experience. Loigman’s research, from Yiddish cartoons to the Tenement Museum, exudes authenticity, invoking the sights and smells of a bygone Lower East Side. The historical chapters are compelling; the more contemporary ones are equally so. Readers who like their novels dark and complicated might find this one too breezy and uplifting. But anyone whose life has been touched or inspired by a grandparent will be drawn to The Matchmaker’s Gift—its vision of how one generation can affect another through shared stories and connections.
Ellyn Lem is a Professor of English at the University of WI-Milwaukee at Waukesha and a cultural critic. Her scholarship includes numerous articles and books, including Gray Matters: Finding Meaning in the Stories of Later Life (2020).