"An emotional but dreamy novel that...will transport you far, far away from your next dreary Monday morning. You may do a lot of sobbing, but don't worry, you'll be smiling by the end." —Bustle, "12 Spring Break Reads To Help You Escape Normal Life"
**Buzzfeed, "14 Of The Most Buzzed-About Books"
**Popsugar, "6 Books You Should Read"
"A novel you won't be able to put down." —Diane Chamberlain, New York Times bestselling author
Brooklyn, 1947: In the midst of a blizzard, in a two-family brownstone, two babies are born, minutes apart. The mothers are sisters by marriage: dutiful, quiet Rose, who wants nothing more than to please her difficult husband; and warm, generous Helen, the exhausted mother of four rambunctious boys who seem to need her less and less each day. Raising their families side by side, supporting one another, Rose and Helen share an impenetrable bond forged before and during that dramatic winter night.
When the storm passes, life seems to return to normal; but as the years progress, small cracks start to appear and the once deep friendship between the two women begins to unravel. No one knows why, and no one can stop it. One misguided choice; one moment of tragedy. Heartbreak wars with happiness and almost, but not quite, wins. Moving and evocative, Lynda Cohen Loigman's debut novel The Two-Family House is a heart-wrenching, gripping multigenerational story, woven around the deepest of secrets.
|Publisher:||St. Martin''s Publishing Group|
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The Two-Family House
By Lynda Cohen Loigman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Lynda Cohen Loigman
All rights reserved.
The domestic, feminine scene unfolding before Mort did nothing to improve his spirits. Upstairs, in his brother's apartment, substantial preparations were being made. Not just the brushing of hair and the tying of sashes. Serious words were being spoken from man to man, from father to son. Mort pushed away his breakfast plate and frowned.
Thirty minutes before they were supposed to leave, there was a thudding of footsteps down the stairs and a quick knock on the door. "Got to go! See you there!" Abe's voice rang with excitement. Mort had assumed they would all walk over to the synagogue together. "What do they need to get there so early for?" he grumbled at his wife. Knowing better than to defend her brother-in-law, Rose shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know," she answered.
Mort had been dreading this day, the day of his nephew's bar mitzvah, for months. In the weeks leading up to it, the increased noise and activity of his brother's family overhead agitated him. He found himself imagining different scenarios to go with every thud and thump he heard. Was Abe's wife, Helen, testing out a new cake recipe? Was his nephew Harry trying on his new suit? What were the other boys laughing about? Mort tortured himself in this manner for several weeks. He was a sharp, thin man, and in the month before the bar mitzvah he had lost at least ten pounds. His increasingly angular appearance alarmed his wife, but everyone else was too busy to notice.
Rose had been up earlier than usual that morning to make sure the girls were ready on time. Hair ribbons were neatened and his three daughters, clad in matching yellow dresses, were lined up in front of him after breakfast. "They're like a row of spring daffodils," Rose entreated. "Don't you think so?"
Mort looked up, but he was an unappreciative audience. Judith was almost twelve and seemed too old for matching dresses. She was fidgeting in the line, anxious to get back to the book she had been forced to leave on the kitchen table. Every week, Mort insisted that Judith present him with her chosen pile of library books for approval. Every week, Judith asked Mort if he wanted to read one of her books too, so they could discuss it. Every week, he declined.
Mimi, the prettiest of the three, was the most comfortable on display. She was only eight, but already she carried herself with a stylish grace that Mort found unfamiliar. Mort thought she looked the most like Rose. Mimi was forever making cards for friends and family members with pencils and crayons that she left all over the house. Last year, she found her father's card in the kitchen trash pail the morning after his birthday. She ran crying to him with it, waving it in her hand and asking why he had thrown it away. "My birthday is over," he explained. "I don't need it anymore."
Dinah, the baby of the family, had the most trouble keeping quiet during Mort's inspection. She was only five, and though she had been taught not to ask her father too many questions, she couldn't seem to help herself. "What's your favorite color?" she blurted out, eyes wide with anticipation. Mimi, hoping the answer might give her some insight regarding the design of next year's birthday card, seemed eager for the reply. But the response was of no help. "I don't have one," Mort said.
After Mort nodded his silent endorsement of the girls' appearance, the family was ready to go. He usually took the lead during outings like these, leaving everyone else struggling to match his quick strides. The girls knew better than to try to walk alongside him. Even Dinah had stopped trying to hold his hand years ago. Instead, they had taken to walking single file on family outings, like unhappy ducks in a storybook, with Rose bringing up the rear.
Today, however, Mort was so out of sorts that he lagged behind the rest and stayed at the back of the line. Despite the warm weather, he found himself shivering in his baggy suit. His face grew increasingly gray with each step that he took. Rose walked ahead, slow and uncomfortable in the lead position.
The policy of the synagogue was to seat men and women separately, even children. Once they arrived, Rose and the girls headed upstairs to the women's section, while Mort joined Abe and his nephews on the ground floor. While he was relieved to be unburdened by the flock of women that constantly surrounded him, Mort also felt strangely alone. He had been in the sanctuary countless times, but today he felt out of place and insignificant.
The service continued without incident. It was not a stellar reading by any means, but it was not the worst performance he had heard from a bar mitzvah boy either. He felt a secret burst of delight with each mistake his nephew uttered, but no one else seemed to notice. When Mort looked around the room he saw only smiling people, nodding their heads. They were all on Harry's side.
The walk home was painful. Mort walked behind Abe's family, counting the cobblestones, trying to remember important business matters. He felt strongly that he should be using his time more efficiently that day, not wasting it on celebrations. He counted invoices and orders in his head, thinking about how busy he would be on Monday, and made a promise to himself to work on Sunday in order to get a jump on the week's work ahead. At one point he called out to Abe, offering a reminder of an order that needed to be shipped out in a few days. Abe waved his hand in the air, brushing the reminder aside. Abe would not speak about business today.
Back at the house, Mort said hello to relatives he hadn't seen for months. He accepted compliments on his daughters, praises for their dresses and smiles, but nothing could improve his mood. He took a glass of wine and sipped it. When Rose came over to him with a plate of food, she reminded him to give Harry the envelope they had brought. After that he sat alone, feeling self-conscious and clumsy as he tried to balance the plate on his lap.
The party went on that way, silent and empty for him, until it was almost time to leave. He was on his second glass of wine when he felt a strong arm around his shoulders. It was Helen's cousin Shep, a bearded hulk of a man a few years older than Abe. "Morty!" he said, squeezing with his oversized hands. "Good to see you!" Mort tried to pull away, but it was impossible to escape Shep's grip. "Guess what, Morty? No, you'll never guess. I got married! Never been better! Meet my wife, Morty, and my son!" The next minute Mort was being dragged to meet Shep's chubby wife, Alice, and their even chubbier baby boy. "Nice to meet you," Mort said.
Alice was quiet, a perfect match for the outgoing Shep. "I tell you, Mort," he boomed, "being a father is the best thing for a man! Ah, what am I yapping to you for? You know all about it!" He grabbed Mort for one more stifling embrace. "Nice to see you," Mort muttered, retreating as quickly as possible.
In his haste to escape, Mort turned into the kitchen by mistake. Rose was there with several other women, wrapping up food now that the desserts had been set out. She looked over at him and pointed, motioning through the doorway to Harry, who was standing with one of his brothers.
Mort patted his pocket; the envelope was still there. He might as well get it over with so that he could go home. Over the din of the crowd he heard Shep's booming voice again. Shep, that idiot, had a new lease on life! He was holding up his son, swooshing him around like a kid with a toy airplane. What Mort noticed next confounded him. Men and women alike turned their heads, this way and that, to catch a glimpse of the baby. For a few seconds at least, the guests were transfixed, their eyes tightly set on the infant in the air. For a moment, maybe more, everyone else was forgotten, even the bar mitzvah boy himself.
When Mort looked back at Rose in the kitchen, desire leapt at him for the first time in months. He felt suddenly generous and surprisingly hopeful. He approached his nephew and patted him on the back. "Nice job, Harry," Mort told him, slipping the envelope into his hand.
With his task completed, Mort gathered his family to leave. At the door he let Helen kiss him on the cheek and shook Abe's hand for a moment longer than usual. Abe and Helen looked at each other, but when Helen raised her eyebrow, Mort pretended not to notice. He guided Rose through the doorway, and, with daughters in tow, they left.CHAPTER 2
Abe was a lucky man. He told himself that every morning while he dressed and every night before he went to sleep. Abe wasn't religious but every day he thanked God for his beautiful wife, his four healthy sons, his brother and his business. Sometimes he left out his brother, but only when Mort was being a pain in the ass.
Abe was three years older than Mort, but most people thought he was younger by ten. When people thought of Abe, they pictured him either eating or laughing. It was no wonder, then, that Mort (who rarely engaged in either activity) was so often mistaken for the senior of the two.
The brothers owned a cardboard box–manufacturing company in Brooklyn. It had been their father's company before them, and Abe had started working there in high school. He always wanted to go into the business. Mort, on the other hand, wanted to be a mathematician. Abe wasn't sure what mathematicians did, but he knew Mort was great with numbers. When their father died unexpectedly during Mort's sophomore year at college, their mother begged Mort to take a break from school to help Abe. She had faith in Abe, and she knew he was a good salesman. But she also knew him well enough to understand that his benevolent manner could ruin the business if left unchecked. She was afraid he would give too many orders on credit or allow too many discounts. Mort's head for numbers was necessary. And she knew that his no-nonsense, tight-fisted nature would balance Abe's generosity.
Months turned to a full year, and the break became permanent. Mort never returned to school. This, Abe knew, had been a horrible disappointment for his brother. It was the point at which he went from a serious but satisfied student to a grim and resentful young man. Abe felt responsible for his brother's unhappiness. He tried to make Mort feel better about working at the company and changed its name to Box Brothers, thinking that Mort might take some pleasure in their bond of fraternity and commerce. He took Mort to lunch every week and tried to set him up with girls. Abe was dating Helen at that point, and she had a lot of girlfriends. But nothing Abe did brought a smile to his brother's face. Mort continued to be somber and unpleasant, and the others at work avoided him.
In his heart, Abe knew that Mort blamed him for having to give up school. He had spoken to Mort about it only once, fifteen years ago, after their mother's funeral. She was never the same after their father died, and despite the doctors' insistence that nothing was wrong, she continued to shrink and wither until nothing was left. The funeral took place on a cloudy November morning at an empty cemetery. After the prayers were said; Abe and Mort each shoveled a spadeful of dirt onto the half-buried coffin. Abe was heartsick, even more for Mort than for himself. He had married Helen the year before, and aside from his mother's illness, had enjoyed a blissful first year of marriage with her. He worried about Mort going home to an empty apartment. The clouds overhead gave way, and the rain began to fall. The three of them took shelter under a tree.
Helen had spoken first. "Come home with us, Mort. Stay for a while. You shouldn't be by yourself today."
"We'll be together," Abe added.
But Mort refused. The wind picked up, agitating the tree branches overhead like an angry child shaking a doll. Mort wouldn't look at either of them.
"Come, Mort. Just for one night," Helen pleaded. Abe couldn't tell whether Mort was wincing from the wind or from pain. Either way, his brother wouldn't speak. Mort kicked a rock into the tree trunk and dug his chin farther into the collar of his coat.
Abe took a deep breath. "I've been thinking," he said, "It's been three years. Three years we've worked together. I don't know what I would have done without you. I couldn't have pulled it off. But the company's fine now. It's going great. Our sales are high, the warehouse is paid for. We can hire a bookkeeper, an accountant, maybe. You don't have to work there anymore. You can go back to school."
Mort was silent.
"Go back to school," Abe told him. "It's what you want. You'll be happy. You can keep taking your salary — it'll pay for your classes. We'll keep half the company in your name."
Abe heard the low rumble of thunder, distant in the skies. "It's too late for that now," Mort said, his voice heavy with all the venom he could muster.
"Why? You're only twenty-three years old. Nothing's too late."
"I'm not going back to school to make a fool of myself just so you can feel better!" Mort spat the words into the cold, wet air. Lightning flashed overhead, and Abe watched his brother hurry away.
Abe never stopped trying to make it up to Mort. On the surface, their family situations, fortunes and possessions were equally matched: each owned a half interest in the business, each owned a half interest in the two-family house in Brooklyn, each was married and each had several healthy children. As far as Abe was concerned, they were both blessed, with every reason for happiness. But he knew his brother didn't see it that way.
What Abe suspected, what he pushed to the back of his mind during the day, was that Mort not only blamed him but hated him. Some nights, as he was drifting off to sleep, Abe tried to imagine the reasons why. Was he too cheerful? Too eager to show his love for family and his job? Was he too demonstrative with Mort? Did Mort dislike walking to work together every morning? Did Mort object to all of them living in the same house? Abe always thought it was nice for them, nice for their wives to have each other. But maybe Mort felt smothered.
The day after Harry's bar mitzvah, Abe gave up this bedtime theorizing. There were too many other things to think about, and Abe was tired of Mort's sour expression. The guy was a real pill. As a matter of fact, even on the way home from the bar mitzvah Mort had started yammering about one of their shipments, bothering him about orders on a day meant for celebration.
The Monday after the festivities, Abe decided he would walk to work on his own. He would enjoy a quiet stroll for once, unhindered by sales numbers and profit discussions, and think back over the weekend in peace. He whistled on his way, stopping every now and again to smile at a passing acquaintance.
He was almost at the corner when he heard footsteps behind him.
"Abe!" It was Mort, trying to catch up. Abe stopped at the light and waited. As soon as the light turned, he took off again, forcing Mort to match his frantic clip.
"I don't want to talk about the shipment, Mort."
"Of course." Mort was being uncharacteristically agreeable.
"I just wanted to tell you ...," said Mort. He stopped to catch his breath. They were walking much faster than usual. "I just wanted to tell you congratulations on the bar mitzvah."
Abe stopped walking. The morning sun came out on the other side of a passing cloud overhead, and Abe's face widened into a happy grin. Forgiveness came easily to him. He grabbed his brother's shoulder and patted him on the back. "Let's get to work," he said.CHAPTER 3
The day after Harry's bar mitzvah, Helen woke early. When the clock ticked toward 5:00 a.m., she decided it was reasonable to get out of bed. Abe and the boys wouldn't be up for hours, and she would have some time to herself. She walked down the hall to the kitchen, treading softly so as not to wake Rose's family below. Helen often thought she and Abe should live on the bottom floor, especially considering the amount of jumping and stomping that went on in her apartment. She was certain one of her boys was going to end up crashing through the floorboards into Rose's living room one of these days; she just hoped he would end up on the couch.
Helen turned on the light in the kitchen and cringed. There was still so much to clean up from the party. Rows of glasses, left overnight to dry, had to be boxed. Covered plates of cookies and pastries had to be frozen or given away. If they stayed on the counter, the boys would devour them all before lunchtime and have stomachaches for the rest of the day. Helen measured out the coffee for the pot and sat down at the table, waiting for it to brew.
Thank goodness the day before had been a success. Earlier in the week the rabbi had spoken to her quietly, taking her aside to express his concerns. The rabbi didn't usually talk to the mothers, so Helen knew it was important. He assured her that Harry was a wonderful boy, but that she shouldn't expect too much. He tried to tell Helen what she already knew. She just hoped it wouldn't be too disappointing for Abe.
Excerpted from The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman. Copyright © 2016 Lynda Cohen Loigman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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