Book Club: Lucky Us
Amy Bloom's Lucky Us, with its cracking opening line, joins our Book Club
My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.
Whenever a list of fantastic first lines crops up on the internet, I'm often aware of how few of them seem to be from recent years. This is unfair. Recent books haven't had the time to sink into the broader consciousness in the same way that A Christmas Carol or 1984 has.
It's also not fair to single out new novels. Compilers of such lists have the entirety of literature to choose from. It's not as if they only select books from a single ten year period. The point of all this is that with Lucky Us, I'm fairly certain we've got a new addition to the lists of 'books with brilliant first lines'.
The opening perfectly sets the tone of the novel. Wry and detached, Lucky Us is about two sisters seeking their future in Hollywood during World War Two. Iris is determined to become an actress and persuades her sister Eva to accompany her to Los Angeles. From here, for reasons we won't go into for fear of spoiling the plot completely, the family head East across the country, impersonating butlers, governesses and fortune tellers along the way.
Bloom's strength as a short story writer shines through with the book being told through a series of individual scenes. Letters between the various characters serve as both a link and a way to get to intimately know them. It's a risky structure that Bloom pulls off brilliantly.
Lucky Us is a great book about lying, cheating, stealing and doing your best with the cards life dealt you. It's a book about characters over plot and, as we wouldn't be recommending it otherwise, it is well worth reading.
Read an extract from the first chapter of Lucky Us below.
I’d Know You Anywhere
My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.
She tapped my nose with her grapefruit spoon. “It’s like this,” she said. “Your father loves us more, but he’s got another family, a wife, and a girl a little older than you. Her family had all the money. Wipe your face.”
There was no one like my mother, for straight talk. She washed my neck and ears until they shone. We helped each other dress: her lilac dress, with the underarm zipper, my pink one with the tricky buttons. My mother did my braids so tight, my eyes pulled up. She took her violet cloche and her best gloves and she ran across the road to borrow Mr. Portman’s car. I was glad to be going and I thought I could get to be glad about having a sister. I wasn’t sorry my father’s other wife was dead.
We’d waited for him for weeks. My mother sat by the window in the morning and smoked through supper every night. When she came home from work at Hobson’s, she was in a bad mood, even after I rubbed her feet. I hung around the house all July, playing with Mr. Portman’s poodle, waiting for my father to drive up. When he came, he usually came by two o’clock, in case there was a Fire- side Chat that day. We listened to all the Fireside Chats together. We loved President Roosevelt. On Sundays, when my father came, he brought a pack of Lucky Strikes for my mother and a Hershey bar for me. After supper, my mother sat in my father’s lap and I sat right on his slippers and if there was a Fireside Chat, my father did his FDR imitation. Good evening, friends, he said, and he stuck a straw in his mouth like a cigarette holder. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. He bowed to my mother and said, Eleanor, my dear, how ’bout a waltz? They danced to the radio for a while and then it was my bedtime. My mother put a few bobby pins in my hair for curls and my father carried me to bed, singing, “I wish I could shimmy like my sister Kate.” Then he tucked me in and shimmied out the door. Monday mornings, he was gone and I waited until Thursday, and sometimes, until next Sunday.
My mother parked the car and redid her lipstick. My father’s house was two stories of red stone and tall windows, with fringed lace curtains behind and wide brown steps stacked like boxes in front of the shining wood door. Your father does like to have things nice, while he’s away, she said. It sure is nice, I said. We ought to live here.
My mother smiled at me and ran her tongue over her teeth. Could be, she said—you never know. She’d already told me she was tired of Abingdon, where we’d been since I was born. It was no kind of real town and she was fed up to here hostessing at Hobson’s. We talked a lot about finding ourselves a better life in Chicago. Chicago, Chicago, that toddlin’ town... I saw a man, he danced with his wife. I sang as we got out of the car and I did a few dance steps like in the movies. My mother said, You are the bee’s knees, kiddo, and she grabbed the back of my dress. She licked her palm and pressed it to my bangs, so they wouldn’t fly up. She straightened her skirt and told me to check her seams. Straight as arrows, I said, and we went up the stairs hand in hand.
My mother knocked and my father answered the door in the blue vest he wore at our house during the president’s speeches. My father hugged me and my parents whispered to each other while I stood there, trying to see more of the parlor, which was as big as our whole apartment and filled with flowers. (Maybe my father said, What the hell are you doing here? Maybe my mother cursed him for staying away, but I doubt it. My father had played the gentle- man his whole life and my mother must have said to me a hundred times that men needed to be handled right and a woman who couldn’t handle her man had only herself to blame. “When I say men are dogs,” she’d say, “I’m not being insulting. I like dogs.”) Be- hind my father, I saw a tall girl.
“My daughter Iris,” my father said. I could hear my mother breathe in.
“Iris,” he said, “this is my friend Mrs. Logan and her daughter, her lovely daughter, Eva.”
I knew, standing in their foyer, that this girl had a ton of things I didn’t have. Flowers in crystal vases the size of buckets. Pretty, light-brown curls. My father’s hand on her shoulder. She wore a baby-blue sweater and a white blouse with a bluebird pin on the collar. I think she wore stockings. Iris was sixteen and she looked like a grown woman to me. She looked like a movie star. My father pushed us to the stairs and told Iris to entertain me in her room while he and my mother had a chat.
“Picture this,” Iris said. She lay on her bed and I sat on the braided rug next to it. She gave me a couple of gumdrops and I was happy to sit there. She was a great talker and a perfect mimic. “The whole college came to my mother’s funeral. My grandfather used to be president of the college, but he had a stroke last year, so he’s dif- ferent now. There was this one girl, red hair, really awful. Redheads. Like they didn’t cook long enough or something.”
“I think Paulette Goddard’s a redhead,” I said. I’d read this in Photoplay last week.
“How old are you, ten? Who the hell wants to be Paulette God- dard? Anyway, this redheaded girl comes back to our house. She’s just bawling to beat the band. So this lady, our neighbor, Mrs. Drys- dale, says to her, ‘Were you very close to dear Mrs. Acton?’”
The way Iris said this, I could just see Mrs. Drysdale, sticking her nose in, keeping her spotted veil out of her mouth while she ate, her wet hankie stuffed into her big bosom, which my mother told me was a disgusting thing to do.
“I’m twelve,” I said.
Iris said, “My mother was like a saint—everybody says so. She was nice to everyone, but I don’t want people thinking my mother wasted her time on this stupid girl, so I turn around and say that none of us even know who she is and she runs into the powder room downstairs—this is the funny part—the door gets stuck, and she can’t get out. She’s banging on the door and two professors have to jimmy it open. It was funny.”
Iris told me that the whole college (I didn’t know my father taught at a college; if you had asked me, I would have said that he read books for a living) came to the chapel to grieve for her mother, to offer sympathy to her and her father. She said that all of their family friends were there, which was her way of telling me that my mother could not really be a friend of her father’s.
We heard the voices downstairs and then a door shutting and then the piano, playing “My Angel Put the Devil in Me.” I didn’t know my father played the piano. Iris and I stood at her bedroom door, leaning into the hall. We heard the toilet flush, which was embarrassing but reassuring and then my father started playing the “Moonlight Sonata” and then we heard a car’s engine. Iris and I ran downstairs. My mother’d left the front door open and just slipped into Mr. Portman’s car. She’d set a brown tweed suitcase on the front porch. I stood on the porch holding the suitcase, looking at the road. My father sat down in the rocker and pulled me onto his lap, which he’d stopped doing last year. He asked me if I thought my mother was coming back and I asked him, Do you think my mother is coming back? My father asked me if I had any other family on my mother’s side, and I lay my head on his shoulder. I’d seen my father most Sundays and some Thursdays since I was a baby, and the whole rest of my family was my mother. I was friendly with Mr. Portman and his poodle and all of my teachers had taken an inter- est in me, and that was the sum of what you could call my family.
Iris opened the screen door and looked at me the way a cat looks at a dog.
We sat down to meat loaf and mashed potatoes and the third time Iris told me to get my elbows off the table, this isn’t a board- inghouse, my father said, Behave yourself, Iris. She’s your sister. Iris left the room and my father told me to improve my manners. You’re not living in that dreadful town anymore and you’re not Eva Logan anymore, he said. You’re Eva Acton. We’ll say you’re my niece.
I was thirteen before I understood that my mother wasn’t com- ing back to get me.
Iris didn’t ignore me for very long. She bossed me. She talked to me like Claudette Colbert talked to Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life, when she said, “We’re in the same boat, Delilah,” which showed that the white lady had no idea what the hell she was talk- ing about, and of course Louise Beavers just sighed and made more pancakes.
Iris helped me navigate junior high. (A big, red-faced girl cor- nered me after two weeks and said, Who are you, anyway? Iris dropped a manicured hand on the girl’s shoulder and said, Gussie, this is my cousin Eva Acton. Her mother has also passed away. And the girl said—and who can blame her—Jeez, what are you two, vampires? Don’t walk past my house, is all I’m saying.)
I helped Iris prepare for her contests: elocution, rhetoric, dra- matic readings, poetry readings, patriotic essays, and dance. Iris was a star. She had a lot of admirers at school, and some girls who didn’t like her, and she didn’t care. I pretended I didn’t care either. I hung around the library and got A’s and my real job, as I saw it, was to help Iris with her contests.
Things were not as nice at the house as they were the day my mother dropped me off. We didn’t have fresh flowers anymore and everything was a little dusty. Iris and I cleaned our rooms and we were supposed to clean the parlor and the kitchen too, but we didn’t. No one did. My father opened cans of salmon or tuna fish and dumped them on our plates, on top of a lettuce leaf. Sometimes he boiled six hot dogs with a can of beans and put a jar of mustard on the table.
I found Charlotte Acton’s very clean copy of Joy of Cooking and I asked my father if I could use it. My father said that he wanted me to know that he and Iris would eat anything I deigned to make. Irma Rombauer said on the first page to begin by facing the stove. I put a bunch of parsley and a lemon in a chicken and put it in the oven for a couple of hours. We finished the chicken and my father thanked me.
On my thirteenth birthday, I made crepes, my father read “The Highwayman” aloud, and we had pineapple upside-down cake for dessert. Iris put the candles in and they both sang.
On New Year’s Eve, our father went out and Iris and I drank gin and orange juice out of her mother’s best cherry-blossom tea- cups.
“May the hinges of our friendship never grow rusty,” Iris said. “I got that from Brigid, the maid. Before your time.”
“Hear, hear,” I said, and we hooked elbows and choked down the gin.