Anita Diamant’s new novel,“The Boston Girl,” comes to us as the transcript of a tape-recorded monologue delivered by an 85-year-old woman named Addie Baum. Addie is cheery, alert and full of needlepointed wisdom. If this allegedly spontaneous memoir is any indication, she’s also the most well-organized 85-year-old woman in the world. Asked by her granddaughter to talk about how she got to be the person she is today, Addie takes us back to 1900, the year she was born. From there, she leads us through a series of episodes that have all the color and vibrancy of a plastic bouquet.
Addie was the plucky daughter of immigrants who escaped starvation and violence in Russia to settle in a tiny Boston apartment. “In 1915, there were four of us living in one room,” she begins. “We had a stove, a table, a few chairs, and a saggy couch that Mameh and Papa slept on at night.”They eat a lot of potatoes and cabbage. Deeply suspicious of America’s loose culture, at home Addie’s parents speak only Yiddish, mostly to bicker. Her mother, in particular, is a joyless hag. She criticizes Addie for wasting her time studying and staying in school: “She’s already ruining her eyes from reading. No one wants to marry a girl with a squint.” That’s Mameh in a nutshell, which is where she stays throughout this novel, huddled and bitter, tossing off worn aphorisms and barbs about everyone else’s failures. (Does Mameh turn sweet and loving on her deathbed? Such is the suspense that electrifies “The Boston Girl.”)
Addie, of course, finds ways to escape her parents’ suffocating expectations. She joins a reading club for Jewish girls. There she meets a better class of people, who introduce her to games and books and leisure activities that would scandalize her mother: lawn tennis, archery, croquet! She has to ask what the word “hiking” means. She’s excited to see a wicker chair for the first time. One of her friends has the cutest dimples in the world.
We’re a long way from “The Red Tent,” that feminist novel of biblical proportions that propelled Diamant onto the bestseller list in 1997. (This week’s Lifetime miniseries based on the novel surely sparked new interest.) But here, in early 20th-century Boston, Diamant strictly observes the rituals of the American immigrant story, which is not necessarily a problem. After all, that archetypal form offers a standard foundation while remaining flexible enough to accommodate an infinite variety of interior design.
At this late date, though, the demands of originality in the immigrant story, both in plot and style, are high — higher, alas, than this pleasant, undemanding novel is willing to reach. For instance, although Addie’s father is a respected man in thetemple and young Addie is aware of the anti-Semitic currents running around her, Diamant makes little effort to address issues of faith or ethnic prejudice. Instead, Addie’s anecdotes are mostly charming, sweet tales one might hear while trapped with grandma for an afternoon in the retirement-home dining room. (Try the Jell-O; it’s good.) Long stretches of “The Boston Girl” are so predictable that AARP should sue for defamation.
It’s not as though serious, even wrenching events don’t arise in these pages. Addie’s desperately anxious older sister flits about like a character from “The Glass Menagerie.” A young man Addie dates has been ruined by post-traumatic stress disorder, which doctors tell him to deal with by not talking about what he remembers. And there’s rape, abortion, suicide and all manner of thwarted dreams — other people’s, at least. But Diamant insists on packaging these incidents in neat little chapters that admit none of the messiness or indeterminacy of lived experience. World War I, the flu of 1918, the Minnesota orphan train, Southern lynchings — they’re all blanched in the warm bath of Addie’s sentimental narrative. A reference to the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti immediately gives way to an engagement party. Later, an abusive man is murdered — probably by an ax — but Addie concludes that episode by crowing, “I had pie for breakfast every day for the rest of the summer.” My hopes rose for a taste of “Sweeney Todd,” but no.
“The Boston Girl” suffers most from its refusal to acknowledge the complexity of memory and oral history. Addie claims, “I’ve forgotten a lot more than I like to admit,” but without hesitation, repetition or unconscious revelation, she delivers happy recollections from the 1920s with more detail and dialogue than I can recall from breakfast. On the tight, shiny surface of this narrative, there’s so little tremor of real life. Without letting us hear the resonance of actual reminiscence and the timbre of authentic speech, the novel moves along without moving us.
Charles is the editor of Book World. His reviews run in Style every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
THE BOSTON GIRL
By Anita Diamant
Scribner. 322 pp. $26