Monday 8 November
‘The Orphans Daughter’ – Jan Cherubin
A father’s boyhood experience of abandonment shadows his fraught relationship with his daughter in this novel.
Cherubin’s book braids together three narratives exploring the life of a Jewish family in New York and Baltimore from the 1920s to the ’80s. One follows Joanna Aronson as she cares for her father, Clyde, during his latest struggle with cancer while butting heads with her stepmother, Brenda, a cold woman whom Joanna suspects of neglecting him and even trying to kill him. Interspersed are Joanna’s memories of growing up in suburban Baltimore with her sister and parents in the ’60s, a life that seems idyllic yet seethes with subterranean discontents. Clyde, an English teacher, dominates the family with his charisma but undermines it with his affairs, including a liaison with one of Joanna’s teenage acquaintances. Joanna’s mother, Evie, feels trapped in housewifery and longs for the fulfillment she felt as a Communist Party activist. Joanna, though drawn like Clyde to the life of the mind, feels slighted because of his wish that she had been a boy. A colleague of her father’s seduces her at age 14. Threading through the story is Clyde’s memoir of growing up with his brother, Harry, in New York’s National Hebrew Orphan Home after his father abandoned the family and his mother placed the two boys there in 1924. It’s a Dickensian story of cold, hunger, loneliness, frequent beatings, and sexual abuse, but it’s lit with friendships and intellectual ambitions. Cherubin’s bittersweet tale is an epic and indelible character study of Clyde from frightened cub to kvetching lion in winter, with overtones of King Lear and an occasional queasily incestuous vibe. She writes in evocative prose that mixes astringent reality with glowing reverie. (“I sized up the three agents,” recalls Evie of a visit from the FBI during the Joseph McCarthy era. “Cold, smug, and bored. They could not begin to understand how alive I was during the war, how urgent and meaningful my life was thanks to the CP. How engaged I was with the world… I still miss those days.”) As Joanna grapples with her clan’s vexed legacy, the author shows how both betrayal and forgiveness can propagate across generations.
An alternately dark and luminous, wounded and affectionate portrait of a family in crisis.