- Three Daughters
Imagine the worst thing that could happen to a control freak in New York City. Yes, her Filofax blows off the top of her car as she merges onto the Henry Hudson Parkway. But how, you ask, did her Filofax even get to the top of her car?
This is how we first meet Shoshanna Wasserman Safer, nearing fifty, the central character in Three Daughters, Letty Cottin Pogrebin's family saga. The date is Wednesday, February 17, 1999: "Ash Wednesday. The day she lost control. The day order turned to ashes." Shoshanna proceeds to dash in and out of the traffic to retrieve every page of her past, present, and future. In fact, she turns it into a dance—the chaotic dance of an attempt to reestablish order: "Wait. Run. Retreat. Wait. Run. Retreat." Thus does the writer introduce us to two of the main themes of her novel: control, its uses, and its abuses in one dysfunctional, extended Jewish family; and the dilemmas and ensuing craziness in the lives of educated women who juggle the warring demands of family and work.
One of the papers that flies out of the Filofax and onto the Parkway is an aerogram from Shoshanna's father, Rabbi Sam Wasserman, who has made aliyah and lives in Jerusalem. The missive informs Shoshanna, his only daughter from his beloved second wife Esther, that he will be coming to New York to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award from his former synagogue, Rodeph Tzedek (Pursuing Justice) Congregation on the Upper West Side, in a ceremony to be held on December 31, 1999. The Now of the rest of the book transpires between Ash Wednesday and the new millenium's New Year's Eve, the Christian calendar always providing a mirror to American Jewish lives. [End Page 276]
Within these ten and a half months, Shoshanna takes upon herself the goal of healing the breach between her stepsisters, Leah, 62, and Rachel, 64, and between Leah and Rabbi Sam, who have not spoken to each other for nearly 35 years. A tall order, even for someone whose career is organizing other people's lives, homes, and calendars.
The choice of the biblical names Rachel and Leah is not coincidental. Just as betrayal is a major theme between siblings and parents in the Bible, so too in the Wasserman family. Pogrebin never states whether we are to assume that this is a Jewish trait/curse that has been handed down in our genes, or a universal one that the whole human family "enjoys."
To Pogrebin's credit, she delivers the goods that she promises the reader in this initial scene. We meet all the family, mainly in flashbacks. Leah is a strident, brilliant women's libber and professor of English, still rebellious and angry. At the root of her anger, we learn, is the rabbi of Rodeph Zedek, who abandoned her when she was twelve to save his career. Leah was raised by her bitter and crazy mother, Dena.
We meet Rachel, whose trademarks are a Jewish star around her neck, a double strand of pearls, and a head full of trivia factoids. Rabbi Sam adopted Rachel when he married her mother, Esther. Rachel lives a Conservative Jewish lifestyle in a fancy suburban house and is the mascot wife of a rich lawyer husband—who, surprise, is cheating on the side. That it is Shoshanna who discovers this infidelity gives baby sister an uncomfortable control over her oldest stepsister, raising another theme that runs through the novel: family secrets, lies, cover-ups, and deceits. Only when Shoshanna was a teenager did she learn of the existence of her half-sister Leah, who was surviving Dena's antics in Boston.
Shoshanna is supposedly the luckiest of the three daughters, because she grew up with her own father and mother, Sam and Esther, from birth. But luck has its price:
She'd inherited her mother's kaynahoras—the crazy dearsabout having too much, the obligation to be grateful for the good stuff but not to get smug or showy lest she attract...