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Review: The Wartime Sisters, by Lynda Cohen Loigman
St. Martins, 2019. 285 pp. $28

Talk about sibling rivalry. From the moment Ruth Kaplan’s younger sister, Millie, first breathes oxygen, the older girl ceases to exist. No one sees her, pays attention, listens, or thinks she has any talents a girl needs. Oh, sure, she’s bright, bookish, and well organized, but since when have those qualities attracted a husband? Not in Brooklyn in the late 1930s, at any rate, when Ruth comes of age, as a serious young woman studying accounting at college. And not so long as thoroughly modern Millie’s around, cheerful, pretty in a way that turns heads, and easygoing.

Do Mama and Papa Kaplan try to balance the rivalry or combat it in any way? On the contrary; they do their best to create and perpetuate it:

Though Ruth’s tiny transgressions were few and far between, they never seemed to escape her mother’s notice. Any misstep Ruth made was a short, shallow wrinkle on an otherwise smooth and pristine tablecloth. Millie’s slipups, by contrast, were like a full glass of burgundy tipped over onto clean white damask. To their mother’s discerning eye, Ruth’s wrinkles were conspicuous. But her sister’s stains were overlooked and hastily covered — anything so that the meal could continue being served.

What a chilly portrait Loigman has created, a premise so simply elegant, with so few moving parts, that there should be no heavy machinery required to create power, poignancy, or depth. Ruth escapes Brooklyn, marrying Arthur, a decent guy, supposedly as dull and plodding as herself, a whiz kid who, in the war years, gets posted to the federal armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, to do weapons research. Millie’s no-good boyfriend, handsome and dashing but worthless to all eyes but hers, marries her and enlists after Pearl Harbor, also leaving behind a young son, Michael.

The Springfield Armory’s experimental workshop, 1923. In the right background, wearing a lab coat, stands John Garand, inventor of the rifle that became standard army issue in World War II (courtesy National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons)

I like this part of the story best. Told in flashback, the narrative shows how the sisters’ estrangement only hardens with time. Kaplan mère is quite a piece of work, vicious and controlling. Love is sweet, she says, but it tastes better with bread, and she preaches to Millie the unalterable fantasy that the girl will marry a fabulously rich man who takes care of all her wants, every single second, smitten by her beauty and charm. My grandmother’s version was, “It’s just as easy to marry a rich girl as a poor one,” which led her to campaign, hard, against my father choosing my mother. So I’m right there with Loigman in all this.

Indeed, when Loigman lets character drive her narrative, which she does until about the halfway point, The Wartime Sisters packs a punch. After that, however, the contrived story takes over. The sibling rivalry, though still essential, gets diluted by the presence of too many other voices, and the narrative descends into predictable melodrama. Loigman might have redeemed this had the sisters confronted one another properly, with a knockdown, drag-out fight that’s been brewing all their lives. Instead, when their obligatory battle arrives, it peters out much too soon — and, even worse, I get the impression that the author has played favorites, tipping the scales. One sister apologizes; one doesn’t, pleading that she wasn’t responsible. Baloney. It takes two to tango.

The prose style reads almost like nonfiction, practically devoid of metaphor. However, I like the dialogue very much, and the author uses it to create short, powerful scenes. The best concern the sisters and, later, Lillian, wife of the commanding officer at the armory, whose upbringing was even more harrowing than theirs and forms a point of comparison. But too many characters seem vacant, whether Ruth’s daughters, the nasty, bigoted busybody wife that probably every military installation must have, or the caricature of Mama Kaplan, a dreadful person with no apparent redeeming features.

Strangely, The Wartime Sisters might have worked had Loigman merely let the sisters slug it out. But once a subplot takes over, the sisters have no chance to get at one another, and the narrative follows the expected route. Ironically, making those extra pieces fit probably demands more work, when filling out the characters already present might have sufficed. It’s too bad; The Wartime Sisters has its moments. I just wish there were more of them.

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