amed by tabloids and forced to live out the rest of her life as an impoverished wannabe. This sounds like a story we’ve all heard before. Yet “Lucky Us,” a new novel by Shapiro Creative Writing Center Director and Kim-Frank Family University Writer in Residence Amy Bloom ’75, takes this frequently told tale and breathes life into every aspect of it. Published in July by Random House Press, the novel is a fascinating journey through the lives of various overlapping, oppressed groups in the World War II-era United States.
Bloom was trained in psychotherapy at Smith College and has published three novels, as well as multiple short stories. On Wednesday, Sept. 17, Bloom read from “Lucky Us” at the Russell House and answered questions about her book and her writing process.
“Lucky Us” has a constantly shifting cast, with hopeful star Iris and her dedicated sidekick sister Eva at the center of the story. The pair starts off in small-town Ohio, moving from Hollywood to New York City and beyond. The novel also picks up the stories of their friends, rich and poor, successful and anonymous, as the girls navigate a world of discrimination, heartbreak, danger, and war.
Bloom’s characters are compelling from the first page, where Eva is introduced as a plain, awkward, and unfailingly brilliant daughter of a professor’s mistress. Iris, the legitimate daughter of the same man, is charismatic and beautiful, but short-sighted and naïve. They run away to Hollywood so Iris can try her hand at acting, but they find themselves out of luck when The Los Angeles Times runs pictures of Iris that reveal that she is a lesbian. In desperation, they leave for New York City with their father, who reappeared in the hopes of taking a share of Iris’ acting money, and Francisco, Iris’s makeup artist.
Bloom’s characters defy easy description, beginning with depth and evolving further over the course of the story. Like all good literary characters, they are neither entirely lovable nor easy to hate. It is their tendencies for both right and wrong, good and bad, that allow them to carry their complex, emotionally demanding stories.
The narrative perspective changes throughout the novel, featuring Iris’s descriptive letters, Eva’s sharp-tongued inner monologue, and the unfortunate life of Gus, a German mechanic that the girls meet upon their arrival in New York. Bloom juggles the constant changes in narration with complete ease, giving her characters incredibly distinct voices and storytelling methods. Sharp changes in tone also guide the reader through these transitions, which span years and thousands of miles in the turn of a page.
Switching among perspectives also gives Bloom a chance to fully explore all of her characters, rather than singling out a main character for development. As a result, each character takes on a remarkably complex personality. Francisco in particular shines as a sassy, protective father figure with a wealth of knowledge about various upper-class professionals.
While her characters compel through biting humor, relatable awkwardness, and horrific heartbreak, it is the realism of Bloom’s novel that keeps the pages turning. Even the minute details of the era feel grounded in truth.
In fact, Bloom’s world is so well-researched that readers may find themselves facing history that America rarely acknowledges, such the internment of over 11,000 German Americans. Gus is among this number, giving emotion and face to the struggle of internment and, for some, repatriation of American citizens, many of whom had never been to Germany in their lives.
Though most of the characters are not forced to directly confront the war as Gus is, the war’s influence subtly pervades all of their story lines. While Gus’ depiction of the allies bombing a German town is heart-wrenchingly blunt, perhaps more startling is Bloom’s understanding of how the war permeated all aspects of life, from the fear of any kind of difference—whether in race, sexuality, religion, or social status—to the desire for psychic knowledge of the future and the ease of faking important documents.
Bloom expertly portrays the intersectionality of the oppression Iris and Eva face, with Iris’ relationships leading to explosive events while their ongoing poverty is normalized in the background. Her diverse characters provide a refreshingly realistic portrayal of race relations and the barriers that remained up in a time when the normal structures of society were breaking down.
At her talk on Wednesday, Bloom stated that she cannot write until she can “hear the characters” in her head for more than just a moment. Her connection with her characters is obvious, as “Lucky Us” takes a cast that is excluded, impoverished, and uncertain—undoubtedly down on their luck—and portrays these characters as much more than downtrodden. Though they are less than heroes, they manage to handle it all. Bloom shows that if we focus on the human connections that we have, we can all see ourselves as the lucky ones.