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Review: Leaving Lucy Pear, by Anna Solomon
Viking, 2016. 319 pp. $26

It’s summer 1917, and eighteen-year-old Beatrice Haven sneaks out of her uncle’s home at Cape Ann, Massachusetts, one night to leave her newborn infant in a pear orchard. Her act is desperate, of course, but not entirely random, for Bea anticipates that poachers from town will be coming to raid the orchard and will therefore find the child. What follows is beyond predictable, but Bea’s only thought–indeed, her only choice, as she sees it–is to save her baby from the orphanage. Further, that suits her purposes, for she plans to attend Radcliffe come the fall, though whether that notion is hers or belongs to her mother, Lillian, is an open question.

Bartolomeo Vanzetti, left, and Nicola Sacco, 1923 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons via Boston Public Library)

Bartolomeo Vanzetti, left, and Nicola Sacco, 1923 (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons via Boston Public Library)

Meanwhile, the woman who picks up the infant girl is Emma Murphy, mother of eight, wife of a hard-drinking fisherman, Roland. The narrative shifts ahead to 1927, when Lucy Pear, as the foundling is called, is ten years old, and Emma has tired of her husband’s frequent absences and violent temper. She’s easy prey for Josiah Story, mayoral candidate and quarry manager, whose charm, money, and connections prove irresistible. Josiah arranges for Emma to tend Bea’s invalid Uncle Ira, who still lives in the house with the orchard. The job brings Emma needed money, a measure of independence from Roland, and puts her in Bea’s path, for that’s where she lives too. Radcliffe lasted barely a few months, and depression has immobilized her ever since.

So everybody’s got secrets, and cowardice has brought them about. Had Bea been able to stand up to her mother, she might not have made disastrous, self-destructive decisions. If Emma could face down her husband, she’d be better off, as would their children. And so on.

All those tightly contained secrets create an emotional pressure cooker, and Solomon exerts every ounce of tension imaginable, posing moral tests right and left that her characters often fail. I admire her refusal to protect them or ease their way; they’re no better than anyone else, and sometimes less. Yet the author never disengages to throw them in your lap, as if they were suddenly your problem. I think it takes courage to write like that, particularly when, more often than not, the publishing marketplace values the milk of human kindness, even–especially–if it’s artificially sweetened. Reading Leaving Lucy Pear, I’m reminded of the boldness of Philip Roth or Vladimir Nabokov–though she’s more merciful than they–and in most ways, it works for her.

I also admire Solomon’s way of illuminating psychological moments through superb prose:

Her mother looked at her tenderly and Bea felt swollen and strangled. She nearly began to speak. I am already so disappointed. She was stopped by fear: fear that if she started talking about herself, she would never stop; fear that her pain would fall out of her, grotesque, hairless, gasping, and she would not be able to stuff it back in.

All this makes Leaving Lucy Pear a gripping, painful, exceptionally well-observed narrative. And it’s also damned difficult to read, because the only truly sympathetic characters among a multitude are Lucy, Bea’s Uncle Ira, and her estranged husband, Albert. Tenderness is strictly rationed here, whereas hardness litters the ground, blocking every move, or so it seems. There’s a fine line between courageous, unflinching honesty and what can feel, at times, like authorial sadism. Solomon crosses it, I think, which makes her people difficult to sit with.

Similarly, I wonder why the Havens, wealthy Jews, must have no sense of their Jewishness except that they’re ashamed of it, Lillian especially, who’d do anything to pass. I get that Leaving Lucy Pear is partly about people afraid to be who they are, and that the historical background includes the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and the unabashed bigotry it aroused, an atmosphere from which nobody escapes. Even so, the portrayal has a mean edge, and the Havens’ self-hatred digs them a deeper hole than they already have as crass, disconnected, and (in Lillian’s case) manipulative people. Solomon rescues them, somewhat, by conveying how weak and fearful they are, and therefore still human. (Lucy, at age ten, is actually the strongest, most luminous character in the story, outshining both her mothers by far.) Yet Leaving Lucy Pear is a frightening, disturbing ride, and though I like the ending, I felt a bit bruised by the time I got there.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.