LUCKY US, by Amy Bloom. Random House, 240 pp., $26.
When we first meet Eva, the protagonist of Amy Bloom's ebullient 1940s novel, "Lucky Us," she is 12 years old, living in a small town in Ohio with her mom. That lasts less than a page, as this perfidious mother unceremoniously dumps her on her father's doorstep and hits the road for good.
Eva's new half-sister, Iris, is 16, looks like a movie star, and has made a pile of cash winning speech and dance competitions. When their father is caught robbing Iris' kitty not once but twice, the girls light out for California.
While Iris is starting her acting career in Hollywood, Eva spends her days alone, becoming more endearing with every sentence. "I made up sequels to the books I'd read: David Copperfield and his wife and three kids, living at the seaside . . ." Already you feel you would follow Eva anywhere, which is good, because she gets around.
Iris' lesbian fling with another Hollywood starlet leads to a disaster involving gossip columnist Hedda Hopper -- and the girls are back on the road again, this time to East Brooklyn.
The sections that tell the story of their adventures are interleaved with letters between the characters, some sent, some unsent, some contemporaneous with the narrative and some from the future. The very first of these, sent by Iris from London in 1946, clues the reader in that a rift between the sisters lies ahead.
On the East Coast, the girls and their dad end up in Great Neck, living in the carriage house of some sweet Italian-American nouveaux riches named the Torellis. Iris has another crazy love affair -- this time with Reenie, their married cook. This passionate disaster leaves one person dead, one orphaned, and one in an internment camp for suspicious German-born Americans.
Unusual warmth and good humor prevail through even the tragic events of the novel. If the sudden turns of Bloom's plotting recall God's, her voice is filled with echoes of the late, great Grace Paley: the Yiddishy cadences, the deadpan wisecracks, the motherly embrace of all that is human. One of many Paleyesque passages talks about the progress of racial diversity in Great Neck: "Gus knew his history; unless you actually kill the people you have let move into your town, there is no getting them out. Their children will mix with your children. . . . Their children will be more beautiful than any child ever produced in your otherwise monochromatic family tree."
I've always loved Amy Bloom, but until now thought I preferred her short stories to her novels. This delicious book, with its vibrant take on the decade it portrays, has changed my mind.