I heard the buzz first: Elizabeth Poliner’s reading at Politics and Prose had created quite a stir. There was a story that took place in the women’s fitting room at Loehmann’s, a friend said, you would have loved it.
Loehmann's? I remembered the store as a mecca for rock bottom retail prices when I was growing up, but as a setting for literary fiction? Trust me, my friend said, it works.
Poliner’s Mutual Life & Casualty does feature Loehmann’s as a setting, as well as the small Connecticut suburb of Wells, where the Kahn family, the only Jewish family in town, is living amid a nest of WASPs. The Kahn home sits just “yards from four corners, the crossing of route 27 with main street, the main intersection in town.” The Kahn house and family are quite literally sitting at a crossroads, and the times they are a-changin'…
“That fall my father was planning to vote for Richard Nixon. Like my budding atheism, this too was against my will. And my mother planned to duplicate his vote. Hers was a choice based on duty and loyalty to my father, not her own feelings, which in the fall of 1972 she had yet to discover.”
With Mutual Life & Casualty we're in the narrative territory of a novel in stories, which is always a big hit over at my blog, The Happy Booker. David Huddle's Story of a Million Years, and the newly released and emotionally wrenching Mother of Sorrows, by Richard McCann, are a few of my favorites of this genre.
To make this novel format work successfully each story must be strong and able to hold its own within the framework of the narrative. Poliner's book does that easily, and what emerges from her stories is a compelling, multilayered mosaic of the lives of women—a thoughtful and quiet depiction of deep-rooted family roles and their stranglehold on the everyday.
The wives and mothers in Poliner's book are true Desperate Housewives: confined, constrained and feeling the effects of suburban isolation, a full froth of discontent percolating just beneath the surface. Sitting around making decoupage projects, or counting meals—“only 6,432 meals to go!”— or daring to wear a pantsuit or bare a midriff —this is the stuff of daily life. It all may seem pretty tame now, but this book is very much of a time (beginning in the early 70's), and Poliner captures and renders that time with accuracy and a deft touch.
When Daniel, the Kahn family patriarch, who is larger and louder than his wife and reads two different newspapers daily, questions his wife Naomi about her trendy clothes, he asks “where do you think you’re going?”
She responds, "I am going nowhere. But this is what I wear, what I choose to wear, while I am going there!”
If these themes sounds a bit too Helen Reddy-ish for you, then ML&C may not be your cuppa. Sure, you could look at this work as a history lesson, but don’t expect didacticism and polemics, this book is more about the internal struggle and strife of women in their self-assigned roles. The storm brewing here is a quiet one, played out in living rooms, bedrooms, and yes, even fitting rooms—the small interior spaces of women's lives.
The characters in ML&C are, for the most part, ordinary women leading ordinary lives: teacher, mother, daughter, wife, divorcee. What proves extraordinary is Poliner’s clear-eyed ability to write about these lives, their loves and losses, missteps and fumbling false starts, in a way that elevates them into something that is larger than the sum of its parts.
The housewives in this book talk daily about “everything,” a codified word that holds several meanings:
“Yet “everything” defined something else, less definable, like a mood. It had to do with how these women were doing. “How are you doing?” they’d ask each other daily. “I’m doing okay,” I’d hear Mom sometimes say, or, “I don’t know. Too much to do, I guess. I feel…” There was always something compelling and ever-changing about the “everything” they were always after."
The Kahn daughters, Carolyn and Hannah, who come of age against the backdrop of their parents ailing marriage, narrate many of these stories, and their mother's choices—married young, no career, shopping as cure-all— effects each differently and deeply. Individually, the daughter's stories stand on their own: carefully crafted, richly observed and effective. Yet when read together, they create a layered work, filled with poignancy and insight.
To be honest, ML& C was a book that snuck up on me. Through the interconnectedness of the stories, the voices of the Kahn sisters, the mutual lives of women, I was slowly drawn in. The casualties in Poliner's book often live under the same roof, in a home that lies at the intersection of past and future, a place where stories serve as legacy and are passed along with each generation.
If you like your novel narrative served straight up, with a single point of view, or if you're looking for a neat and linear time line, with a plot that moves from point A to point B, then this is not the book for you. Simply put: Mutual Life & Casualty is a book filled with stories told in the voices of women, some major characters, some minor notes, and some that repeat the same plot points, all coming together to form a resonant chorus, a compelling and complex tale that deserves to be heard.
If you're interested in Mutual Life & Casualty, we will be hosting a week-long discussion starting October 17th.