Solomon, Anna. “Leaving Lucy Pear”, Viking, 2016.
Women and Motherhood
Beatrice Haven is the daughter of very wealthy Jewish industrialists and she is a wonderful pianist headed to study at Radcliffe in 1917. However, Bea learns that she is pregnant from an affair she had with an aide to a Naval officer who was visiting nearby. Bea’s parents sent her to live with her uncle in Gloucester, Massachusetts and then plan to send the infant to an orphanage. Bea however has a different plan and she sneaks out of her uncle’s house with the baby that she leaves under a pear tree and watches as a woman claims the child. Bea knew that at night there are those who come into the garden to steal fruit and she felt certain that her baby would find a home. As it was, Emma Murphy, the wife of a poor fisherman, found the child and raised her as one of her many children.
Ten years flew by and the politics of Gloucester along with the commerce of the town brought the two families together. Prohibition was in full swing, and America after the war was xenophobic. Bea had not fulfilled the hopes she had for herself and because she was so unhappy she returned to Gloucester to her uncle’s home once again thinking it might help cure her unhappiness. But through the manager of the quarry, a rumrunner reunites her with Emma Bea also learns of Lucy Pear who is a cross-dresser and who has many secrets. As Lucy tries to discover who she is, her two mothers become involved in her life.
The book is important to me as a new resident of New England and as I read I actually went to Gloucester to feel the atmosphere there (not that I needed it). Anna Solomon is a wonderful descriptive writer. She has also created characters that are unforgettable because they are so very real. And as is so true of New England, the characters are in bound to their social class as they are to the politics and economics of the time. Now you may wonder where the Jews fit into all of this. This was a time when Jews were able to begin businesses and build wealth as long as their named were anglicized and their backgrounds and religion were not mentioned. Anti-Semitism was not yet overt as it later came to be. This was a time of Sacco and Vanzetti and immigration to this country and what we see in the rum running that went on that New England had a shady side during prohibition. immigrants and the justice system also play out through the story. Cape Ann’s rum-running years show the dark side and dangers that prohibition brought to New England.
This is a character driven novel and we learn of the humanity and of the flaws of the characters. Their back-stories are necessary in order to fully understand them and writer Anna Solomon has carefully included these by weaving them into the overall narrative. Her descriptions of Cape Ann and Gloucester are right on the button from what I can tell from my own explorations. In the novel we confront issues of freedom and class as well as the meaning of family, both as a word and as a concept.
Solomon’s language is gorgeous and she brilliantly uses it to show how sexuality, religion, ethnicity, and class are seen by others and how they impact the way we live. There is something that keeps the characters set apart from each other and they cannot seem to breach the divide that separates them. We also read of child sexual abuse, and the effect of f child labor laws, about what is expected from women and motherhood, being unable to bear children and birth control and its availability during the time of the action. The politics of gender is important here especially when three strong women (two mothers and a daughter) come together. This is a totally fascinating picture of New England in the 1920s and one that you will remember long after you close the covers of the book.