"American Children" is the same old story dressed up in a 1940s wrapper. It definitely fits into the Upper West Side Jewish American Princess (J.A.P.) and has most of the stock characters, scenes, events and dialogue that readers of contemporary J.A.P. novels are conditioned to expect. It has, for instance, a Jewish abortion in the Bronx, a discussion of the baguettes on a Jewish engagement ring, a Jewish wedding and even one bris thrown if for good measure. These elements are all too familiar after the glut of female fiction on the market during the past decade. They have to be there.
Only the time element differentialtes "American Children" from its sisters. The protagonist, Lois Ackerman, comes of age in Manhattan during the post-World War II era. This makes the details anthropologically more interesting than those plucked from the already overworked '50s, '60s, and '70s. The author, Ann Birstein, handles this tired material adroitly; her tone is consistently 1940-ish, while the dialogue artfully reflects the times. Observations about the fashions and foibles of the '40s are finely tuned.
Lois tells it in the first person so that her perfectly predictable voice and views dominate the narrative. She opens her story by describing the tardy arrival, from the Bronx, of her flamboyant girlfriend, Rosalie, who enters their "Dec. 23, 1946, Survey of Eng. Lit., Eng. 402" class wearing more orangy pancake makeup than usual plus a black patch over one eye so she won't have to take an exam for which she's unprepared. The narrator's response? "After all we had been through in the past two and a half years, how could she pull that stunt with the eyepatch again? It was a wild wanton risk -- and of course typically Rosalie."
The cliches of J.A.P. class consciuosness accumulate , while college coeds, like stick figures drawn by nurseryschool children, flash their '40-era fancies and fantasies in the foreground. During the surprise of her first seduction, Lois is horrified to find herself wearing a blue skirt "only 20 percent wool" and pink underwear which was "rayon and left over from wartime." The background scenery is as perfectly furnished as Lois' friend's bedroom which had not been stuffed "with castoffs from other parts of the apartment, and contained a vanity table and also twin beds with matching powder blue spreads so that her friends could sleep over."
Lois Ackerman has a Jewish mother who has a little bell which brings in a maid to serve "kosher pot roast from the left." She has a Jewish father who procrastinates about bringing his last surviving relative to the States from a DP (displaced persons) camp in Italy. The reader watches the hesitations of "Manny Ackerman, such a big shot in the dress business, such a string puller, that already though the war had been over only a year and a half, we owned a new black Buick, a television console with a tiny flickering screen the size of a snapshot . . . ."And more.
Eventually Lois' cousin Josef arrives from Italy looking disappointingly like a DP. He is sporting a "long pinky nail on his left hand, as long as Fu Manchu's which he explains is "essential for small mechanical tasks, such as slitting things open, or folding them down." Of course Josef finally makes a predictable pass at Lois which gets him banished to Brooklyn.
The moral of this story is that sometimes a nice Jewish girl -- like Lois Ackerman -- can save herself from marrying a CPA the mimute she graduates from college and can travel around Europe for a little while first.
Ann Birstein's talent and experience are obvious. She has done, her work well in a limited universe. But women readers, writers, editors, and critics, are still waiting for the "big screen" book. What "American Children" lacks is a Major Theme -- a quest beyond the looking glass. To fault a book for its failure to do something it never intended to do may be unfair, but the seamless consistency of tone and graceful development of plot by this wry writer seems to beg for a more ambitious work that won't betray her abilities.
Some American woman writer has got to go for it.