For the novelist the subject of family provides rich ingredients: love, conflict, loss, and always that underlying current of heredity as the characteristics of one generation crop up in another. This theme of genetic predetermination provides an ironic force, heavy with dramatic possibilities, which Rhea Kohan sets out to explore in her second novel, "Hand-Me-Downs."
The family, in this case, is the Ritters, and Kohan focuses on the female line. The progenitor is Makla, a young woman of strong will and sharp intelligence who struggles to maintain some control over her life despite the conventions of a Polish shtetl . The apparent heir to Makla's strengths and her faults is her West Coast American granddaughter and namesake, Marilyn Ritter.
Like her grandmother, Marilyn is something of a beauty, and she possesses the incisive cleverness which made Makla, in a less-enlightened era, an outcast in her village. Marilyn manages a successful career as a Los Angeles attorney. But like Malka, she invariably chafes at the standards of behavior set down by society and her family, preferring instead to chart her own stubborn course. She refuses to love her husband and apparently can summon no affection for her children.
Caught between these two strong, independent and often dislikable women, is Helen Ritter, the unloved daughter of one, the unloving mother of the other. Helen blames most of her psychological problems on Malka and her domestic difficulties on Marilyn. Their relationship is complicated by Helen's conviction that Marilyn somehow embodies the mother who cruelly refused to love her. The irony is, of course, that Helen too carries Malka's genes. The qualities she sees only in her mother and her daughter also reside in her. She can be just as calculating (her machinations at the book's conclusion are stunning). She is just as selfish, and she too can fail to love a child. As her mother-in-law Yuspeh tells her, "Every woman is her mother's daughter -- even you."
Tantalizing possibilities are offered by such a clearly delineated mother/daughter conflict, and the first few chapters of Kohan's novel promise much, told as they are with restraint, detachment, irony and bitter comedy. But somewhere between the Polish shtetl and the glitzy world of L.A., Kohan reroutes and recasts her novel. It loses much of its tension by going off in too many directions, and by the end "Hand-Me-Downs" has taken on the characteristics of a TV situation comedy, complete with wise-cracks (do we also hear canned laughter offstage?). Much of it is funny, but the change from what we expected catches us off balance.
Kohan's apparent ambiguity toward her central characters also presents a problem. There are no clear signals on how we should read these people, and it's difficult to identify with either Helen or Marilyn. More successful are the supporting roles. Yuspeh, at 83 a feisty and funny Jewish mother, is a masterpiece, drawn with a fine pen and steady hand. She is a kind of Greek chorus commenting on most of the action as it occurs around her. She also has the last word in nearly any exchange. At one point Marilyn demands of her, "Why does older mean smarter?"
"Triumphantly, knowing she had hooked her fish, Yuspeh delivered her coup de grace . 'Older means smarter because . . . some things, mine darling just take longer to figure them out . . . that's why.' She clicked her dentures and sat back, pleased."
Ira, Marilyn's accountant husband, is served up in a nutshell when Kohan tells us he was the kind of man "who had always wanted to own and drive a Jaguar XJ [but] had instead bought a Pontiac Firebird because it got 3.6 miles more to the gallon."
The Ritter family is full of pain, not all of it self-inflicted and most of it incurable even by the balm of chicken soup. Yet, in the end, everyone finds a way to live, even Helen and Marilyn, and "Hand-Me-Downs" is an entertaining, clever and gutsy novel. Despite its disappointments, there is, shining through even the slick scenes of situation comedy, the hand of a perceptive and talented writer.