The Lost Family by Jenna Blum. HarperCollins. 413 pages. $27.
A number of writers who teach at Grub Street (an independent “creative writing center” on Boylston Street) have been landing on the bestseller lists and reeling in million-dollar advances. Among them is Celeste Ng, whose novel Little Fires Everywhere is No. 14 this week. Fellow Grubbie Whitney Scharer received a million-dollar advance from Little Brown for her first novel The Age of Light, and Jenna Blum, whose novel Storm Chasers was a bestseller, has a new book out: The Lost Family.
The plot of The Lost Family sounds like a hit movie. A German Jew who survived the camps as a cook comes to the United States and opens a successful restaurant where he meets a beautiful model whom he marries. The problem is that his history follows him to America. He can’t get over the loss of his young wife and their twin girls to the Holocaust, and his benefactor, cousin Sol, who bankrolls his restaurant, is, unbeknownst to our hero, a crook.
Any attempt to keep the Holocaust and Nazi Germany in the public’s mind is to be applauded with the recent lurch toward authoritarianism here and abroad. Jenna Blum, however, doesn’t go into a lot of detail about the war or the camps; instead the novel takes place from 1965 to 1985 in the US. Although the main character, Peter, flashes back to the war now and again, he represses his memories and refuses to talk about it with his wife, June Bouquet, who gives up her career to settle down with Peter, first in Manhattan and then in Claremont, New Jersey. In Claremont, the novel goes into the point of view of June, who leads a life of suburban frustration à la January Jones from Madmen while Peter throws himself into his job as chef of his restaurants, the place he feels most at home.
This may work well as a film in which actors bring June and Peter to life, but that never really happens in the novel. We want to feel sorry for Peter, who, we learn, ignored his first wife Masha’s entreaties to leave Germany with the twins. Peter’s father smuggled Jews out, but Peter refused his help. The inability to take action is Peter’s salient characteristic. In addition, throughout the novel, the way Peter deals with his grief is to suppress it, so we never really learn what he went through in the camps as opposed to, say, Elie Wiesel and his son in the excellent Holocaust memoir Night.
As the writer William Kittredge once said, “Great character makes great fiction.” The characters in The Lost Family, with the exception of the daughter Elsbeth, are all a little flat. Halfway through the novel, June, looking at Peter, thinks: “How different he was from the man she’d thought he was, the man he’d turned out to be.” This insight might work if earlier in the novel Peter had been different, but he is exactly the same as he was 200 pages ago.
The plot finally picks up in the last section of the book, which is told from the point of view of the daughter, Elsbeth, who is left to work out the problems she inherits from her parents. Blum has a good feel for how teen girls talk and think. The tone in this section is satirical, almost as if it is from a different book.
Nonetheless, you might want to include The Lost Family on your list of summer reads.