Jenna Blum’s third novel, “The Lost Family,” begins in 1965 and centers on an improbable couple: an elegant Auschwitz-survivor chef and his much younger American wife. Peter Rashkin belongs to the Old World and his lost family, a dead first wife and twin daughters. He is also devastatingly handsome, like Christopher Plummer as Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.”
Peter’s new wife, June Bouquet (yes, really), is an astonishingly beautiful model and resembles Twiggy. June has greater predilections for decorating and smoking than motherhood. Peter, meanwhile, buries his grief in the restaurant. Naturally, their daughter, who has a weight problem and a shaming mother (“That waistband hits you just at the wrong place, and the belt emphasizes your double stomach”), is on track to blossom into a Major League Mess.
The story — there is a lot — rips along. Much of the plot is not so much telegraphed as Tasered. If a character’s associates carry the Runyonesque nicknames “Choppers” and “Dutch,” the reader understands mob many pages and sunken dreams before the hapless target. Same with a creepy photographer who is compared to Humbert Humbert . Or a tennis pro and shellshocked Vietnam vet whose father communicated with his fists.
They are delivered in yards of neon “Caution” tape, but to no avail. We have entered the land of the obtuse. As a reader, it is not especially rewarding to feel far more astute than the characters.
As for verisimilitude, Blum perfects many period details. Peter’s restaurant serves a Hamburger Walter, as in Cronkite, described as “Ground Chuck au Poivre & Flambéed in Brandy, Accompanied by Pommes Frites & No Vegetables At All.”
But the author stumbles in a thicket of useless info and proper names, the sinkhole of so much popular fiction. Every clothing designer is tediously identified. A character cannot eat a cookie; it has to be a Mint Milano. No one merely goes to a drugstore; it must be CVS. Blum includes more details about driving from northern New Jersey to Larchmont, N.Y., than anyone cares to know: “The Garden State Parkway to the George Washington Bridge to the Cross-Bronx to the Hutch and, eventually, to Larchmont.”
MapQuest, it should be noted, does not make for compelling reading.
Karen Heller is a writer for The Washington Post.
By Jenna Blum
Harper. 417 pp. $27.99