Merrill Joan Gerber opens the door of a tenement household over a hundred years ago and invites us into the sounds, smells, lives, and drama of a Jewish immigrant family struggling to survive on New York's Lower East Side. In this family, Ava is abruptly separated from her beloved, handsome, philandering father; then from Rachel, her Mama, and her brother as Mama works as a midwife to pay for a divorce.
Ava finds herself an unwelcome guest in Mama's sister's home until Mama marries a cold, tyrannical tailor so that her family can be together once again. Ava finds refuge in school and tries to be invisible as she is excluded again and again when her half-sisters are born. She finds meaningful work, then marries the brother of her friend Tessie. Here the saga begins to include her younger stepsisters, Musetta and Gilda. Although Gerber's three generations of women dominate this rich stew of mothers and daughters, aunts and uncles, a couple of sons and a couple of husbands during the two World Wars have a deep psychological influence upon how the women respond to life's joys and difficulties.
The Victory Gardens allows us to witness the passions, both positive and negative, and personal growth of four Jewish women. Gerber is skilled at inviting the reader into the story with her strong, realistic prose. This drama of the not-so-distant past captured my interest from beginning to end.
Merrill Joan Gerber is a prize-winning novelist and short-story writer. She teaches fiction writing at the California Institute of Technology.
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