Brooklyn, 1947: in the midst of a blizzard, in a two-family brownstone, two babies are born minutes apart to two women. They are sisters by marriage with an impenetrable bond forged before and during that dramatic night; but as the years progress, small cracks start to appear and their once deep friendship begins to unravel. No one knows why, and no one can stop it. One misguided choice; one moment of tragedy. Heartbreak wars with happiness and almost but not quite wins.
From debut novelist Lynda Cohen Loigman comes The Two-Family House, a moving family saga filled with heart, emotion, longing, love, and mystery.
The Two-Family House is the story of sisters-in-law Helen and Rose. Helen is married to Abe, a kindhearted, loving man who, along with his younger brother Mort, owns and runs Box Brothers, a box manufacturing company. Helen and Abe have four sons; Rose and Mort have three daughters. Mort is a bitter, closed-off man whose life has been a series of disappointments. He has little attention or love to spare for his children, and resents Abe’s happiness and success. The two families share a brownstone, with Abe and Helen living just up the stairs from Rose and Mort.
Rose and Helen are best friends, and the two of them and all of their children are constantly in and out of one another’s apartments, sharing holidays, birthdays, and really, just about every moment of every day, as well as their innermost hope and dreams. In 1947, both women became pregnant, the first time they’ve been expecting together. Mort is convinced that he’ll finally get the son he longs for, and treats Rose with more respect and tenderness than he’s ever shown before.
But a blizzard hits New York while Abe and Mort are away on business and, snowed in and unable to get to a hospital, both women go into labor at home. A midwife is fetched from down the street, and two healthy babies are delivered. Helen has a baby girl — her first daughter — and Rose finally succeeds in giving Mort the son he’s always wanted.
All is perfect. Right?
Well, no. From the time that Natalie and Teddy are born, the relationship between Helen and Rose seems to change. Rose withdraws, becoming increasingly unfriendly, and shows all the signs of postpartum depression. She takes little interest in her new baby and often leaves him to cry, until Helen swoops in to the rescue from upstairs. Helen takes care of both babies, and tries to reach out to Rose, but to no avail: The closeness between the two seems permanently broken.
The novel travels through the years that follow, ending more than 20 years later. Through those years, we see the children grow up and how the various relationships all change. The story is told through chapters with an alternating array of points of view, so we get chapters from the perspectives of Abe, Mort, Rose, Helen, and some of the children.
The shifting points of view yield an uneven results. Some characters are simply more interesting than others. There are stretches of time where the main occurrences are quiet rifts or disruptions, or pieces where we mainly hear how unhappy various characters are. Tragedy ensues, but time keeps marching forward. The parents age; the children grow up. Relationships change, and in some cases, fracture.
Through it all, it all comes down to the birth of the children in 1947, what really happened, and how that one night changed everything for everyone.
MINOR SPOILERS FROM HERE ON!
Listen, if you’ve read what I’ve written so far, it’s not a stretch to figure out what happened during the blizzard. Heck, we pretty much know within the first couple of chapters. So yes, I’ll just go ahead and say it: The babies were switched. Sorry, but this barely counts as a spoiler — it’s obvious right from the beginning.
So the question in the novel is — why did this happen? How did it happen? And how do the characters go forward with their lives once it has happened?
The why and how are answered, but not entirely satisfactorily. I just didn’t buy it. Would a mother who’s just delivered a newborn willingly trade under any circumstances? Well, maybe… but in the circumstances provided in The Two-Family House, I didn’t believe it. The motivation, at least on one side of the equation, just didn’t seem strong enough to me.
But accepting the premise, it’s interesting to see the dynamics play out in the days, months, and years that follow — the guilt, the resentment, and the willful dishonesty that’s required to perpetuate a lie. Once the initial deception has happened, even if there’s regret or second-thoughts, there seems to be no way to undo what’s been done (and actually, we never see either of the women contemplate or consider switching back). And despite the fact that these events were only possible because of the incredibly strong bond between Helen and Rose, it’s the switch itself that cause the rupture in their relationship, creating an insurmountable obstacle that hinders every interaction from that moment forward.
The plot of The Two-Story House is interesting, but somehow the execution lacks true drama or momentum. The fact of the switch is obvious from the start, and the resolution at the end of the book and what drives it is also something that pretty much any reader will see coming from a mile away. I enjoyed the family dynamics and the shifting relationships between all of the various combinations of characters, but wished there had been something a bit more to truly make me care about the outcome.
Overall, this is an enjoyable book, particularly when viewed as a period piece and a character study. But in terms of the plot, I never quite bought the actions or motivations of Helen and Rose, and since this is what drives the entire story, I always ended up feeling like something was missing.
Still, I do think readers who enjoy contemporary fiction with a domestic focus will appreciate this novel, and I look forward to seeing what this debut author will do next.
Title: The Two-Family House
Author: Lynda Cohen Loigman
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: March 8, 2016
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley