In 1938, a wealthy family of European Jews comes to America, traveling first class in their journey away from Hitler. They don't expect the coming war to last very long and consider themselves only transients. Soon they're comfortably established on the Upper West Side of New York City in a self-contained community of friends and relatives who are all arrogantly above assimilation. They create their own society, forcing their children to straddle the border between the old and new worlds. It is a society in which minor players, Madame Tina, the corsetiere, and Miss Mildred, the saleswoman at Bendel's, are named by the narrator while other, major characters, like family members, are not.
As the book opens, the protagonist is an infant-in-arms during the first Atlantic crossing, the arms being those of a professional nursemaid. In this, her first novel, Lucienne S. Bloch makes a convincing case for the emotional deprivation that often accompanies social privilege. Parents who go out day and night and a household in which meals are prepared by a series of private cooks contribute to a childhood in which food is stolen and the psychically unattended child later grows fat on private consolation. Hence, the importance of Madame Tina and Miss Mildred, who do their best to make the oversized heroine acceptably fashionable. She is launched, with all her encumbrances, into the company of peers. No adolescence is easy. Hers is complicated further by an upstaging mother, an absent father and a sense of her own foreigness.
"On The Great Circle Route" is written as a first person narrative without a single word of dialogue. This lack of conversational give-and-take frequently reflects the distance the narrator feels from the people she describes, those unnamed parents and siblings and aunts and uncles. And often they are described with brilliant and lyrical precision: "My mother never had any trouble expressing herself. A nonstop talker, she was like a deluxe train, a 'rapido.' Glittering with brightwork and vividly plush, she sped from subject to subject without pausing to let passengers on."
And about the brother: "Jokes tumbled casually from his lips, he could play jazz piano, he was popular, he listened, he never got a good grade in his life. I, older by less than a year, was sharp and shy, quick to cry, with a very nasty temper. Together we might have made up one whole person."
The "half-person" who relates this story is a chronic and witty observer of the small details of other people's lives. But she rushes quickly from one event or fact of her own life to another: schooling, friendships, familial madness, and even love affairs, fulfilled and aborted. The reader, too, is on a rapido, and through its windows can sometimes only glimpse the swift and dazzling scenes that lead to the narrator's adulthood, where we witness the beginning of a conversion. No local stops are made on the way. In summary, "The years went by, long and contradictory as those years were."
The guiding principle for the novel seems to be economy -- which proves to be both a virtue and a failing. Brief impressions of the social behavior of animals are sharp and incisive and beautifully rendered. They are also aptly analogous to our own behavior: "Some animals, giraffes, say, or bobwhites in dry grass, fawns and flounder, finding themselves in a strange or possibly threatening situation, will make use of at least a thin veneer of any protective coloration that may be abailable to them. With a bit of luck, they blend into the landscape and dappled safety."
We are often told, though, rather than shown what really happens between people. Even when the telling is fine, I feel an impatience to know more about the interaction between lovers, between parents and children, husbands and wives. What did that nonstop-talking mother actually say? What did anyone say? We never find out, as the narrator stays stubbornly with her own account of things.
Lucienne S. Bloch is also gifted in innuendo and in the poetry of language, but even when I'm persuaded, I miss the exchange of human voices.