Shelf Control #283: As Close To Us As Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner

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Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

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Title: As Close To Us As Breathing
Author: Elizabeth Poliner
Published: 2016
Length: 369 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A multigenerational family saga about the long-lasting reverberations of one tragic summer by “a wonderful talent [who] should be read widely” (Edward P. Jones).

In 1948, a small stretch of the Woodmont, Connecticut shoreline, affectionately named “Bagel Beach,” has long been a summer destination for Jewish families. Here sisters Ada, Vivie, and Bec assemble at their beloved family cottage, with children in tow and weekend-only husbands who arrive each Friday in time for the Sabbath meal.

During the weekdays, freedom reigns. Ada, the family beauty, relaxes and grows more playful, unimpeded by her rule-driven, religious husband. Vivie, once terribly wronged by her sister, is now the family diplomat and an increasingly inventive chef. Unmarried Bec finds herself forced to choose between the family-centric life she’s always known and a passion-filled life with the married man with whom she’s had a secret years-long affair.

But when a terrible accident occurs on the sisters’ watch, a summer of hope and self-discovery transforms into a lifetime of atonement and loss for members of this close-knit clan. Seen through the eyes of Molly, who was twelve years old when she witnessed the accident, this is the story of a tragedy and its aftermath, of expanding lives painfully collapsed. Can Molly, decades after the event, draw from her aunt Bec’s hard-won wisdom and free herself from the burden that destroyed so many others?

Elizabeth Poliner is a masterful storyteller, a brilliant observer of human nature, and in As Close to Us as Breathing she has created an unforgettable meditation on grief, guilt, and the boundaries of identity and love.

How and when I got it:

I bought the Kindle edition in 2016, several months after the book was first released.

Why I want to read it:

I probably grabbed this book to take advantage of a Kindle price drop, but I know it had already made its way onto my TBR list by then.

Basically, seeing both “Jewish” and “Connecticut” in the synopsis is probably reason enough for me to want to read this book — but there’s more! I love good historical fiction, and I also love family dramas with secrets coming to the surface and complicated relationships between sisters.

I’m intrigued by the description, and now that the book has come back to my attention, I really want to know what the accident was that they all witnessed, and what happened to change all their lives.

On a more superficial level, I also find myself drawn to this book simply because one of the women on the cover (the one in the pink scarf) reminds me so much of a 1950s-era photo of my own mother!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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Book Review: The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Boston GirlIn 1985, 85-year-old Addie Baum sets out to tell her granddaughter the story of her life… and what a life it is.

Addie was born in Boston in the early 1900s to immigrant parents, living in a cold-water tenement apartment in a poor neighborhood, with no money and only the prospect of hard work ahead of her. And yet, Addie manages to create a glorious life for herself. Through the local settlement house, she meets girls her own age as a young teen, and is soon included in their Saturday Club, where she’s given the encouragement and support to think, explore, and become the person she wants to be.

The Boston Girl is the first-person narrative of the story of a young Jewish girl’s search for independence, education, friendship, and love. We see Addie blossoming as she steps outside of the confines of her family home, creating connections to women that will last her whole life, and jumping into “modern” American life and embracing all it has to offer.

This isn’t some sort of flapper story or a tale of an outrageously outsized individual. Addie is a good girl, and smart too. She doesn’t break all the rules or flout society’s expectations; instead, she uses her brains and her good heart to create for herself the life she wants. She pursues an education when she can afford it, she works hard and is a good daughter, she is loyal to her friends and sees them through rough times. Her mind is open, and while she understands the world of her parents, she’s not stuck in it.

My reaction to The Boston Girl? I loved it.

The Boston Girl is a quiet book. There’s no major dramatic arc or exciting climax, no life-threatening adventure or thrilling heroics. It’s the story of a woman’s life, and it reads like exactly what it is: a grandmother telling her granddaughter all the bits and pieces of her past, bringing to life the faces and places that might previously have only been brief mentions in family lore.

Addie’s voice is sharp and smart, and also quite funny:

My mother took one look and said it made me look like a meeskeit, ugly. That hurt my feelings and made me so mad, I told her I wasn’t going to talk to her unless she used English. And by the way, she knew enough to understand every piece of gossip she heard in the grocery store.

I said it was for her own good. “What if you had an emergency and I wasn’t there?”

“So then I’ll be dead and you’ll be sorry,” she said, in Yiddish, of course.

And on romance, as told to her granddaughter:

You know, if one of my daughters had told me she was going to marry a man she’d only known for a week I would have locked her in her room. But we weren’t kids. I was twenty-five and he was twenty-nine. We were completely sure. And obviously we were right.

Aaron didn’t tell his parents he was in town that weekend. Only Ruth knew. He slept on her couch Friday night, and Saturday night she stayed with a girlfriend so we could be alone, just the two of us, for the whole night.

I’ll leave it at that.

To be honest, I often felt like I was listening to my own grandmother’s stories (although a bit hipper and less judgmental!), and perhaps that’s why this novel really spoke to me the way it did.

You know, Ava, it’s good to be smart, but kindness is more important. Oh dear, another old-lady chestnut to stitch on a sampler. Or maybe one of those cute little throw pillows.

The Boston Girl is a lovely, enjoyable, and quick read. Addie is a wonderful narrator, and hearing her story made me feel like I was being transported to another time. It’s a loving tribute to an earlier generation, especially to the teachers, social workers, and social reformers of the 1920s who made so much possible for the generations of women who followed.

This is the sort of book that makes me want to buy copies for at least a handful of family members and friends. There’s so much here that people I know will relate to! Especially for those of us who grew up with Jewish grandmothers… but really, for anyone who appreciates learning about the joys and struggles of the women who came of age in the early part of the 20th century, this is a book not to be missed.

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The details:

Title: The Boston Girl
Author: Anita Diamant
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: December 9, 2014
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library