LUCKY US opens straightforwardly enough—well, straightforward for fiction, anyway. In 1939, a young girl, Eva, is sent to live with her father, Edgar; Eva's mother was Edgar's long-time mistress, and when Eva goes to live with him, she meets her half-sister Iris for the first time.
Iris is the pretty one, the polished one, the promising one, or so we're told; practical Eva devotes herself to helping her sister thrive. In the short term, this devotion requires dropping out of high school and moving to Hollywood, where the sisters are determined to make Iris a star.
And it seems like it's working, at least at first: Iris begins getting bit parts in movies, and she even takes up with a beautiful starlet whom she meets at a glamorous Hollywood lesbian orgy. (Confidential to Amy Bloom: Write us a sequel set entirely in this world, mmkay?) But their dreams of Hollywood success flame out, and Iris and Eva head to New York, where Iris promptly becomes embroiled in another complicated love affair, this time with a married woman. Eva, meanwhile, teaches herself the basics of Western civ from a collection of Little Blue Books bequeathed by her father; and then, with the help of a friendly gay makeup artist, establishes herself as a fortune teller, reading Tarot cards from a table in the corner of a Brooklyn hair salon.
"If you'd asked me what I understood about fortune-telling," explains Eva, "I would have told you that no one came to see someone like me because they were happy. I would have said, People come because they are so frightened, they wake up in a sweat. They look into the well of their true selves, and the consequences of being who they are, and they're horrified. They run to my little table to have me say that what they see is not what will happen."
Lucky Us weighs in at under 250 pages, but it's a surprisingly weighty read, thanks in part to the variety of perspectives represented. The story is initially told from Eva's point of view, but as people move in and out of Eva's life—first Iris, then a man, Gus, who becomes a close family friend—the novel's scope broadens with the inclusion of the letters they write to Eva after they move away. Eventually, Lucky Us expands to encompass an American internment camp, London's theater scene, and wartime Germany.
The book might also feel longer than it is because Bloom's writing demands to be read slowly. She's a deliberate, economical stylist; her sentences beg to be underlined. Here's just one example, in which a friendly landlady sums up her impotent fury at being a young female immigrant in the US:
"When she was a young person just arrived in the country, Mrs. Gruber said she would cry from rage and frustration, because she couldn't kill the people she wanted to kill. Sometimes, she said, men, who were often the people she wanted to kill, would misunderstand and try to comfort her."
Without making much of a fuss about it, Bloom deals almost exclusively in characters whose stories are typically underrepresented in narratives from that time: Gays and lesbians, African Americans, immigrants. Through these characters, she obliquely examines how class and economic mobility played out in the years surrounding World War II. More directly, though, Lucky Us is concerned with family: the families we build, the families we're stuck with, and how obligation and love jumble together in complicated, often-infuriating ways. Abandoned by her mother and eventually her sister, Eva must construct a family out of the materials at hand, shoddy and inadequate as they sometimes appear. But in an America full of people reinventing themselves for money and fame, the ability to reinvent family might be the most meaningful.