‘Sup readers? It’s Friday, so I bet you were gearing up for an On The Shelf column, but life is full of surprises, so we’re doing a Backlist Books column instead. If you haven’t seen this before, Backlist Books is the exact opposite of On The Shelf: I take a book that’s at least six months old and put it under the microscope to see if, when the hype dies down, it’s still worth the read. So, this week’s pick was author Lynda Cohen Loigman’s debut historical fiction novel.
The Two-Family House was published in March of 2017. Beginning in the 1940s, The Two-Family House centers around, as you might expect, two families (well, one family, but two separate branches). Hearty, gregarious, larger-than-life Abe lives upstairs with his warm, magnetic wife Helen and their four boys. Downstairs is the domain of sour, difficult Mort, his timid, duty-bound wife Rose, and their three daughters. Abe loves his family and believes it to be the nucleus of all good things while, just as vehemently, Mort resents his. Despite being polar opposites, Rose and Helen have an unbreakable bond, both as friends and as sisters-in-law. When Helen and Rose discover they’re pregnant at the same time, they’re overjoyed— and desperate.
Helen, though she loves her children with everything she has, lives in a house full of boisterous boys who are growing into young men right before her very eyes. She longs for a little girl to balance out the rough-and-tumble nature of her brood. On the other hand, Rose’s frenzied desire to finally give her unhappy husband the son he covets is less about genuine maternal longing, and more about knowing that if she fails to give him a boy on her fourth try, he will withdraw from her completely. The idea that Rose might have a son has reinvigorated both Mort and their marriage— she cannot fail.
As fate would have it, Rose and Helen end up going into labour on the night of a fierce blizzard. Getting to the hospital is impossible, and their husbands are away on business. They give birth with only each other and a hurried midwife to bear witness, making a choice that will destroy everything they’ve ever known, testing the bonds of friendship, family, and what it means to love unconditionally.
Listen, I loved this book. I read it before Christmas of 2017 and finished it in less than 24 hours. It was a slow-burning, perfectly-unfurling family saga that employed all the ingredients I typically love in a story like this. I found it really unique in that it spanned over the course of years, following this large, extended, fractured family through birth, through death, and everything in-between, something Cohen Loigman pulled off near-flawlessly. Another aspect Cohen Loigman did really well was the way her characters changed and grew (or regressed) because of the choice Helen and Rose made on that fateful night. At the beginning of the novel I really felt for Rose and couldn’t stand Mort; she had fallen in love with a less-accessible, harsher version of her father, and he was just an unrelenting tightwad who was never satisfied and couldn’t show love for his wife— because prior to her last birth, she could not give him a son— nor his three daughters— because they were, circumstantially, not sons. By the end of the story, it was the other way around. My opinion of Mort had completely changed, while I thought Rose to be selfish, spiteful, and cowardly (yes I read the book, yes I know what she went through. No, I still don’t like her).
I know those who aren’t a fan of the book usually say they thought the “twist,” was obvious and it shouldn’t have dragged on for that long. I, personally, think that maybe the book should have been marketed differently. It wasn’t about the (very obvious. It shouldn’t even be considered one) “twist,” the “twist,” isn’t a twist. The Two-Family House is so wonderful because it’s about living with the consequences of an unthinkable decision, even when the blowback is so strong it threatens to break you. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and no one makes it out unscathed.
There actually wasn’t anything bad about this book, to be honest. I adored it. If I could change anything, it would be— again— to stop potential readers from thinking this entire novel hinges on an unknowable twist with a huge reveal, because if they read it that way, they’re going to be disappointed.
Does It Hold Up Now:
You betcha! I cannot wait for Cohen Loigman’s next book, I was so impressed with her debut. If you think you might want to give The Two-Family House a try, you can check it out here.