The family tree begins with Avrum Sandsonitsky and Esther Dubin Sandsonitsky, in a little German-Polish border village, before the turn of the century. Avrum dies. After depositing Jacob with distant relatives, and Gittel with her own family, Esther takeks Shlomo, the baby, and works her way to America, where an Ellis Island immigration official renames her Esther Sanders.
Years later, bearing permanent psychic scars from his mother's desertion, Jacob also works his way to America, and to Esther's kosher restaurant on the Lower East Side of New York. Eventually, Jacob marries Sara, another loner, who had never been welcome in the peripatetic life of her mother and gambler stepfather.
Sara and Jacob have three daughters -- beautiful Rachel, fat Doris and spoiled Lillian -- whom they altlernately adore, ignore, manipulate, disown and use as buffers for their own miserable marriage. They move to California: all three girls marry and have their own family heartbreaks; most are caused by Sara and Jacob, who never cease their bullying attempts to control their children financially as well as emotionally.
In addition to following them, their husbands, children, and grandchildren (there are now Candice, Cynthia, Gary, Larry and Michele), we also have to keep track of Gittel and Shlomo, and their extended families. Meanwhile Jacob gets richer and meaner; Sara become more neurotic, whiny and mendacious. The book grows longer and longer, and the tale stretches thinner and thinner, as each generation takes its place on the tree.
With "Portraits," novelisit Cynthia Freeman hearkens back in form and substance to the wellsprings of her first major success -- "A World Full of Strangers" -- another multigenerational novel of Jewish-Americian life. It appears, however, that the well is running dry. The best part of "Portraits" starts with the first sentence -- "Jacob was born in a village which is no longer on the map" -- and then goes on the describe his emotional turmoil, traumatic experiences, and the desperation with which he survives those 12 years between Esther's departure and their reunion in New York. Sara's luxurious, private-school background also is well-told. But from there, the book goes downhill.
Sara may be a master manipulator, but she has nothing Freeman, who moves her characters around simply to keep the plot stirred and boiling. Sometimes she grows bored and throws a character away, as with Gloria. Between pages 459 and 466, the initiation and development of Jacob's affair with Gloria (the beautiful young telephone operator in his meatpacking company) is described. Although Gloria knows they can never be married, she is happy with their comfortable, passionate liaison. There is no further mention of this relationship until pages 551, after Shlomo and Esther have died and Sara has undergone a 9-hour operation on her stomach and intestinal tract.
Jacob is in the throes of pain and guilt. . . "And suddenly, breaking through, was his relationship with Gloria. . . another selfish indulgence he'd neatly rationalized. He'd help her, provide for her any way he could, but he was through. He'd been using her, as he'd used so many others. . ." Freeman also is finished with her. Gloria never appears again.
Freeman resorts to a type of shorthand, a mere catalog of who did what, where, when, with whom, in how many cities and continents. Clothing, wallpaper, and furnishings also are listed in minute detail: "Sara looked around at the magnificent furnishings. Nothing escaped her. . . the pastel Persian rugs, the celery-green damask walls, a pair of petit-point chairs and a collection of jade and ivory in a vitrine that could have belonged to the dowager empress of China. Velvet love seats flanked the fireplace, and a Directoire sofa stood against the large wall. But the most staggering of all was the Steinway grand piano." Freeman isn't finished; there are still three more rooms in Rachel's heavenly apartment to get through.
One can get hooked on "Portraits" even while decrying its soap-opera characters and scenario. After all, that's what soap operas are for. If this happens, however, it is best to gulp it down as fast as possible. When spread over too many sittings, the characters and plot strands tend to evaporate, and one is forced (God forbid!) to reread several chapters to get back into the story.
"Portraits" ends with Doris, now a svelt, famous writer of Jewish family stories, rolling a clean sheet into her typewriter and beginning a new novel: "PORTRAITS CHAPTER ONE"
I hope Doris does a better job.