Perhaps it goes without saying that every loving parent does the best they can to make their child's life healthy, secure and happy. Yet, the actions, decisions and words of parents often have very different effects than intended. Children grow up in response to their parents and to the experiences of their childhood. This is at once obvious and subtle. Psychology texts (and therapists' offices) are full of analysis of childhood, its environment and experiences; it's joys and trauma. And artists, poets and writers of fiction also examine and explore childhood to understand adult patterns of behavior and thought. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, renowned activist, feminist and author of non-fiction, has produced in THREE DAUGHTERS, her first work of fiction, an outstanding novel that delves into the childhood of the Wasserman sisters and finds them, in adulthood, wrestling with the issues that have defined them since their earliest years.
Leah, Rachel and Shoshanna are three sisters who are very different from each other. However, all three are products of their childhood and are rebelling against it. Leah is Sam Wasserman's daughter from his first marriage. That marriage dissolved as he lost his wife to alcoholism and mental illness and almost lost Leah as well. Leah meets Rachel at boarding school where she was sent so that her mother, Esther, could pick up the pieces from the abusive marriage she left. Rachel and Leah bond and arrange for Sam and Esther to meet. Not only do they meet but they soon fall in love and marry. Leah and Rachel are sure they now have the happy family they have always wanted. But not all of the family's problems are healed with this merge. In order to present a respectable image to his new congregation, Rabbi Wasserman and Esther tell everyone that Rachel is their daughter and Leah is a niece. By the time Shoshanna is born, this lie, coupled with traumatic early childhood experiences, have damaged the family in ways not easily remedied. Many years later, as Sam Wasserman plans to return to the U.S. to accept an award, his daughters get ready for the floodgate of emotions his arrival will open. And, as their lives are transforming with middle age, they find that they need each other more than ever.
Pogrebin has crafted a beautiful, often heartbreaking, novel. Unique in its depth of emotion and honesty, it is a novel unafraid to allow its characters to be flawed and occasionally quite weak. Despite their weaknesses, or perhaps because of them, the Wasserman family is more than likeable; they are understandable and sympathetic. Pogrebin's respect for her characters, coupled with the intensity of the story, makes for an enjoyable read. The journey of the Wasserman family reveals much about families in general; how the smallest words and actions can have the greatest impact and how what may be understood as "the right thing to do" can have devastating consequences. However, despite the damage done or perceived by each Wasserman daughter, they are survivors who, like their parents, do the best they can at each milestone. Admittedly the last quarter of the novel drags towards the just less than predictable conclusion. Still, THREE DAUGHTERS is powerful, complex and immensely readable. Addressing issues of body image, sexuality, motherhood, marriage, religion, career, self-esteem, personal politics, gender equality and many others, Pogrebin is aware of the complexity of women's public and private lives.
True to her feminist ideals, Pogrebin has presented the lives of middle-aged women with honesty and compassion, showing the joys and the sorrows. We see Leah, Rachel and Shoshanna in transition and their strength is awesome. What a joy to read a work of fiction from a woman who has inspired and spoken to so many through her non-fiction.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 23, 2011