I love historical literary fiction, especially when it teaches me something new. The luminous Leaving Lucy Pear is a novel so rich in sensory images that I found myself transported to a time and place I knew little about and felt instantly connected.
Leaving Lucy Pear
Author Anna Solomon takes us to 1920s Prohibition-era Gloucester, New England, eschewing the glamor of that period for the dark side: the rampant racism and bigotry. The economic instability, political turmoil, the poverty, the violence.
Against this backdrop lives the eponymous Lucy Pear, the daughter of two women. Born to Beatrice, the unwed teenage daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, Lucy Pear is abandoned by her mother in the family’s pear orchard. It is the season when Irish trespassers steal the ripening pears to make bootleg moonshine.
Ashamed to keep the baby, and unwilling to surrender her to an orphanage, Beatrice sneaks out late one night clutching the blanket-wrapped baby and sets her under a tree. The plan works as the thieves discover the baby and whisk her away. Emma, an Irish Catholic immigrant already the mother of a large brood, becomes Lucy’s new mother.
For the next 10 years, the two families intersect in various ways, but the truth of Lucy’s parentage remains hidden. Lucy, a bold and instinctive child, senses there is information being withheld from her. At the same time, she holds on to disturbing secrets of her own.
Solomon uses two historical events that speak volumes in illustrating the bigotry of the time. There was the infamous case of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian-American anarchists who were arrested, imprisoned for seven years, and finally executed for a murder in spite of any solid evidence implicating them.
There was also the “secret court” at Harvard, a witch hunt to expose and then expel homosexual students.
The contrasts in the novel are many: Jewish and Irish, the haves and the have nots, the fecund and the barren, heterosexual and homosexual, yet implicit in all of them are restrictions of the freedom we often take for granted today.
But the most heartrending contrast is between two women from different classes and places in society, of different temperaments and beliefs, who are bound together forever through their love for a child.
Bookended by the turn-of-the-century influx of European immigrants and the rumblings of World War II, the setting of Leaving Lucy Pear is one of the most absorbing features of the novel.
Solomon is an exquisite writer and skillfully weaves together multi-dimensional characters with a plot that is never predictable. You know when you can’t stop thinking about the characters?
That’s the sign of a great book.
One of my lucky readers will receive a copy of Leaving Lucy Pear. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be randomly selected. USA addresses only, please.
I received a copy of Leaving Lucy Pear from Viking for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I write.