Readers of Amy Bloom’s riotous new novel, Lucky Us, might want to pack a few snacks and buckle their seatbelts for this highly entertaining ride, which kicks off when half-sisters Eva and Iris hightail it from small-town Ohio to pursue their dreams in Hollywood.
Bloom herself has always loved a good road trip. “My first road trip was the day after I graduated from high school,” she says during a phone interview in which it is clear that her own warmth and humor is the source for much of the wit found in her fiction. “I went with two girlfriends, we borrowed a car from someone’s overly indulgent father, and we drove from Long Island to Vancouver, down the West Coast and back again. And it was great. I always have a positive feeling when I see people getting into a car with a bag of chips. I even told my daughters all they needed to hit the road was 50 bucks and a couple of Tampax.”
I told my daughters all they needed to hit the road was 50 bucks and a couple of Tampax.
At its wildly beating heart, Lucky Us is a novel of rebirth and reinvention told with the kind of candor that Bloom—the author of two previous novels and three short-story collections—is known for. At the age of 12, Eva is abandoned by her mother at her father and half-sister Iris’ house. The teenagers don’t have much in common, except their shared parent, Edgar—and even he isn’t quite who they thought he was. Bloom was intrigued by the idea of writing about sisters.
“I had never written about sisters before. And though I think there are, as always for any writer, lots of sources, I happen to have a sister, and she is six years older than me. We both say we paid almost no attention to each other until she was going off to college. I was crawling around on the floor while she was riding her bike. So the idea of what it is to get to know a sister later, when you don’t have all that shared history, interested me.”
The charismatic Iris shows early talent as a performer, winning every local and regional speech competition, and Eva becomes her loyal sidekick, dresser and confidante. After the girls catch their father trying to steal Iris’ winnings, they hop a Greyhound bus to Hollywood, where Iris hopes to break into the movies. A scandal ensues and the girls are soon back on the road to New York, but this time, via station wagon, with their father in tow. Their friend Francisco, a hair and make-up artist to the stars, finds them jobs as domestics for the Torellis, a wealthy family on Long Island.
But that’s only the beginning of the girls’ madcap adventures: Later in the novel, an orphan is abducted; a friend is accused of being a German spy; and Eva takes a job as a fortune-teller at a local beauty parlor. At times, the book feels almost like a series of outtakes from some screwball comedy—but these are scenes that would have never made it past the censors, like the lushly described party at the home of Hollywood’s most decadent lesbians, or the sisters conspiring to kidnap a little boy from the local Jewish orphanage for Iris’ childless lover. But Bloom’s command of her characters keeps the novel from spilling over into satire just as her judiciously chosen details keep the plot moving forward.
Though she was born in the 1950s, Bloom is as tuned in to the spirit of the 1940s as she was to the 1920s in her award-winning novel Away. Lucky Us gives her a way to look at how life at home provided new opportunities for change and reinvention, especially for women and African Americans.
“Part of what happened when this country went to war are things that would have been unthinkable 10 years earlier,” Bloom explains. “Women not only going to work, but doing difficult physical labor and being in challenging leadership positions—things that the dominant culture had fought against since its founding. Now, it’s true the war ended and we sent those women packing, the war ended and the level of integration between African Americans and the dominant white culture dripped dramatically, but my own sense is that once you open the door, you cannot completely and forever close it again.”
Each chapter of Lucky Us is headed by a song title from the 1940s, drawn from jazz, blues and pop. These evocative headings are both a distillation of the chapter content and reminder of the rich diversity of the times, while also working as representations of some of the decade’s most profound social changes. “This was a time when music was everywhere, and though there were cultural divides, most popular music was heard by everyone. The high school girl, her science teacher, the principal, the custodian and the guy who delivered school supplies all listened to the same music,” Bloom says, adding with a laugh, “I had such a wonderful time choosing these. Can’t carry a tune, but I sure do like to listen.”
Bloom published a complete playlist of the songs on her website, but says, “If you know the songs, that’s a little plus for you, but even if you don’t, the titles are so evocative they still bring something fresh.”
Most of the novel is told from Eva’s wry perspective, but Lucky Us includes letters, both sent and unsent, from the sisters, their father and Gus, who works with them in Long Island, but through a series of unfortunate events, winds up in a German prison camp. The letters move the plot forward, but more importantly, they give the reader an additional glimpse at the inner thoughts of the characters as well as their joys, frustrations and hidden desires.
“I love the epistolary form. There is something very moving to me about letters. The wish to communicate—which is sometimes successful and sometimes not—something happens in the presence of that intention.”
Bloom’s short stories are known for their wise assurance that the very complexity of human expression—conversational, emotional and even sexual—is not only acceptable but also cause for celebration. In addition to the humor and fast-paced high jinks, Lucky Us contains a similar wisdom as it investigates how we engage with our families, both the ones we are born into and the ones we create.
Bloom, who is now the distinguished University Writer-in-Residence at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, also has a master’s in social work and worked as a psychotherapist. She credits her training for giving her empathy for her characters’ deeply human foibles.
“I learned to not interrupt,” she says, “to pay attention to what was said and how, and what was said before and what was said after. I learned to make as few assumptions as possible. To recognize that people are, in their nature, complex. So that training was really useful, especially the listening part. I don’t think you can be a good writer and a bad listener.”
I don’t think you can be a good writer and a bad listener.
About halfway through the novel, Edgar remembers that his mother once told him, “It’s good to be smart, it’s better to be lucky.” But Lucky Us reminds us that not all luck is good luck. As Bloom puts it, “Luck is a roll of the dice and we are all subject to it. So, better to be lucky than smart? Sure. But better to be lucky and smart, so you have a plan when the dice go against you, which they will—sometimes.”
Her playful novel reminds us that life can only be what we make of it and that the biggest setbacks often result in the most gratifying results. Her readers are all the luckier for it.
Author photo by Deborah Feingold