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THE WARTIME SISTERS by Lynda Cohen Loigman

Lynda Cohen Loigman’s debut novel The Two Family House (reviewed here) is about two Jewish families connected by brothers who live above and below in each other in a house in Brooklyn in the 40s. Her new novel, The Wartime Sisters is also set in the 40s and focuses on two sisters, Ruth and Millie, who grew up in Brooklyn but move to Springfield, MA during the early days of WWII to work in the armory there.

Ruth and Millie have had a strained relationship since childhood. Ruth, resentful of Millie’s beauty and the attention she received from their parents and suitors, has grown brittle and bitter, despite her loving marriage to an army officer and twin daughters. She moves happily to Springfield to get out of her younger sister’s shadow, eager to start a new life where she wasn’t compared to Millie. Meanwhile, Millie is courted by Lenny, a rough, working-class man who her parents don’t approve of, and despite their efforts to keep them apart, she agrees to marry him soon after they die suddenly in a car accident.

When The Wartime Sisters opens, Millie has followed Ruth to Springfield, arriving on her doorstep with her young son and bearing the news that Lenny is gone. Ruth takes her in and Millie gets a job putting rifle triggers together at the armory. The sisters negotiate an uneasy truce in Springfield, but as the story unfolds, Loigman reveals that each sister is hiding secrets from the other, preventing them from truly understanding and accepting each other.

Once again, Loigman has vividly recreated a very specific time and place, this time through painstaking research into the community that built up around the Springfield Armory. I enjoyed the details of life in Springfield – the social strata determined by the roles on the base, the role of women as “soldiers of production” necessitated by the exodus of men into the army – and I admire Loigman’s creation of her fictional world within the physical structure of the Armory.

Loigman teases out Millie and Ruth’s complicated relationship, exploring how years of resentment and miscommunication have ossified into emotional estrangement. Circumstances ultimately force Millie to reveal what she has been hiding, forcing Ruth’s own reckoning with the past and the role she herself played in leading to Millie’s dire situation. Loigman shifts perspective throughout the book and goes back and forth in time to paint a full picture of the sisters’ past and the new lives they are living as adults.

Like The Two-Family House, The Wartime Sisters looks at how the grooves forged in childhood by parents and siblings only deepen with time and can determine the course of adulthood until they are addressed and softened. In The Wartime Sisters, Loigman has created another well-written story with memorable characters and a compelling historical setting.

THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE by Lynda Cohen Loigman

91-3B6rcodLWhen you blog about books, every now and again a friend will ask you if it would be OK if their friend, who has just written a book, sends you a copy of their book to take a look at. At first, you might resist, thinking about the piles of books you haven’t gotten to yet, and wondering if it will be worth the time and effort. Well, in my experience, it is usually worth it. I’ve read and reviewed several books that were recommended to me by friends of the author – such as When Love Was Clean Underwear by Susan Barr-Toman and The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. by Nicole Bernier – which I have really enjoyed.

The most recent addition to this list is The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman, which my friend Tracy told me about. The Two Family House tracks two families – connected by two brothers – who live above and below each other in a two-family house in Brooklyn in the 40s. Mort and Abe own a box company, and Mort, his wife Rose and his three daughters live below Abe, his wife Helen and their four sons. It’s all very cozy until Rose and Helen get pregnant at the same time. After their babies are born, for complicated reasons, the two women drift apart, causing reverberations through both families that have implications for years to come.

Loigman’s story is engrossing, realistic and suspenseful. She writes in simple, engaging prose that conveys her characters’ emotions and personalities with skill and subtlety. (Did I mention this is a debut novel?) I grew to care about the characters and how they fared as the years passed. I also enjoyed the shifting narration, which Loigman used to her advantage to share different perspectives on the same events. There are some plot twists that are somewhat implausible, but they certainly make for a good story. There are moments of sadness and poignancy in The Two-Family House which will stay with me a long time.

I listened to The Two-Family House on audio, and I didn’t love that version. The narrator, Barrie Kreinik, used some pretty strong Brooklyn Jewish accents that I found ultimately distracting. She did a good job of consistently differentiating the various characters, but I still found the accents a little off-putting. I think I would have preferred reading the print version straight through.

If you like engrossing family dramas with shifting perspectives, particularly those set in the past, then I think you’ll like The Two-Family House. Give it a try. Congrats to Lynda Cohen Loigman on a great debut!