In her fourth novel, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer takes us trudging through Russian snows, dancing through Jewish weddings, noshing in Brooklyn kitchens. She gives us childbirth, divorce and nightmares that come true. She serves up murder, pogroms and talking dogs.
This can all be pretty steamy stuff -- the thick soup of family life in a story that spans a hundred years -- but Schaeffer is too clever for that. Family sagas are her specialty, and she knows just how to spoon them out -- in short dream passages as thin as broth, followed by meatier scenes, just dense and sweet enough to make us wish for more.
The book is called "Love," and if Schaeffer's own characters were consulted, they would certainly protest the title. Such a skimpy word to cover a hundred years and nearly 400 pages, they would argue, and, besides, who has time to waste mooning for love? Do you find us showing off in any big love scenes here? Of course not!
But even while they protested, Schaeffer's characters, these Jewish immigrants from Russia, would know the truth. Don't talk about love because the word is too dangerous to say. Love is everything. It courses through their veins, it pumps into their lungs. It brings grief and jealousy and poverty. Occasionally, briefly, it brings joy as well. No, these characters would never admit it, but every scene in this book is a love scene.
The story begins in Russia sometime in the 1880s. Esheal Luria, an undersized boy of 10, is abandoned by his mother and stepfather, who set off to make a new life. Their wagon speeds away, and the youth is left standing in a swirl of dust with tears running down his cheeks.
He is taken in by the "zenshina," a mysterious, rich woman who lives outside of town, surrounds hereself with peasants and dogs, and concocts healing potions from roots and herbs. The zenshina's peasants teach Esheal to stick a knife into the ground and listen to the hum of the earth. The zenshina herself teaches the boy to look inside an onion, to understand something about the layers of time and the fragile, papery shell of life. Staring into the onion, Esheal learns many things at once:
"He saw that the longer he lived, the further toward the center of the onion he would travel until finally he would remain there forever. So, he thought, my outermost skin is the rain, and the mists and the snow, and the earth is the marrow of my bones. He saw that his mother had not gone far from him and he saw that he would go far from others and would not move from them at all."
Eventually, with the zenshina's help, Esheal Luria does go far from all that he has known before. He makes his way to America, to settle in New York City. In this land, where anything might happen, he grows from an undersized boy to an undersized man with thinning hair. He goes to pharmacy school and soon buys his own drugstore.
From a distance he keeps a covetous eye on the close-knit life of another immigrant family, the Romanoffs. And when he manages to marry young Lily Romanoff -- she of the raven hair and the hourglass figure -- he counts himself among the happiest of men.
But in the Romanoff family, the blood runs as thick as beet jelly. No matter that they are a luckless family, that they attract lawsuits and poverty and terrible accidents -- the grandfather is run down by a truck on his way to temple, the father is killed by a falling brick as he takes an evening stroll.
And no matter that they are a smug and not-so-brilliant family; as long as they are together, they are a happy family. Staying together is the Romanoffs' strength, and they are at least smart enough to know that. Lily's sister, Diana, safely marries her own first cousin. Her two hulking brothers keep house with Momma. And, ultimately, inevitably, Lily comes home too. Esheal has to give her up, because, of course, the Romanoffs never meant for him to keep her.
Esheal Luria grows old alone with his dogs. One winter's day, the zenshina visits his pharmacy and beckons like an angel of death for him to come away with her. Esheal declines and after this, time seems to swirl around him like a confusion of snow. For Schaeffer's readers, also, these few chapters are something of a confusion. Esheal ages on one page, grows younger on the next. Seven years pass in a sentence. The web of the Romanoff family grows stickier and more tangled than ever as new generations appear. Finally, even the author herself seems addled in places, mistaking uncles for brothers, nieces for sisters.
But, in the end, after Esheal's death, we get to know his granddaughter, Emily, and suddenly it's clear that we have been deftly brought around full circle. Schaeffer has taken us through the onion and back again. And if, along the way, some of the layers were not quite smooth, it doesn't much matter -- we have learned a lot about families and distance and jars of beet jelly. We have learned all we need to know about the dangers of that word: love.