Pay attention and you’ll notice something. It’s a phrase, often used in book descriptions or back cover copy: “But When.” It sounds simple enough but it changes everything. “But when an old friend comes to visit…” Or, “But when her son goes missing…” That single phrase is the beginning of everything going wrong for a character (and, let’s face it, when things really interesting for the reader). When we began to pay attention to this phrase we thought it was time to begin a new series. So we have invited Lynda Cohen Loigman to share a bit about her new novel, THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE in this latest installment of “But When.” Enjoy!
In many ways, almost everything that happens after Part One of THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE falls into the But When category. In Part One, we meet Helen, the warm-hearted mother of four unruly boys who longs for a daughter to complete her family. She and her husband, Abe, live on the top floor of a two-family house, while Abe’s brother, Mort, and his wife, Rose, live on the bottom. In the past several years, Mort has grown colder and more critical of Rose. Though they have three healthy daughters, Mort will only be satisfied with a son to carry on his family name.
The women give birth on the same night, in middle of a blizzard when both husbands are out of town. Helen has the girl she’s always wanted, and Rose finally gives Mort the son he desires. At this point, we assume that Mort will be content. We hope that Rose and Mort will experience a new, more loving phase of their marriage. We expect Helen and Rose to grow even closer. But when everyone gets what he or she wants, nothing develops as expected.
The first clue that having a son might not be as fulfilling for Mort as we had imagined comes at the opening of Part Two:
After the initial excitement of having a son passed, Mort was ambivalent. He decided that all babies were really the same, and that the only thing separating newborn boys from newborn girls was future potential.
Even when Teddy is older, Mort recognizes his son’s limitations. When Mort studies mathematics with Teddy and Natalie, for example, he knows it is Natalie who truly shines. She never lets Teddy figure out she knows more than he does, Mort thinks. Rose finds Mort’s interest in and easy manner with his niece infuriating, which is only one of the many reasons for the deterioration of their marriage.
Rose’s growing resentment and her estrangement from Mort is another unexpected consequence of that winter night. When the story begins, she is meek and put-upon. But as she grows more assertive and indifference and bitterness take over, the power between her and Mort begins to shift.
The truth was, Mort had noticed a difference in Rose since Teddy was born. He felt a change in her attitude that shifted something between them, a sense that she no longer cared as much about his approval. Since Rose had given him a son, Mort no longer felt justified in voicing any kind of criticism. What’s more, he was sure that Rose had detected this new weakness in his position.
Exploring Rose’s transformation was fascinating, but for me, the most powerful But when thread, and the one that is most pivotal to the story, is the disintegration of Helen and Rose’s friendship. After Helen has Natalie and Rose has Teddy, the sisterhood they have built through years of raising children, sharing confidences and exchanging recipes, slowly falls apart. The unraveling of their relationship – accusations of neglect, holidays spent apart and unconcealed disgust–is heartbreaking. When the tension between them finally comes to a head during Mimi’s wedding, Helen can barely maintain her composure. You were like my sister, she cries. I never thought it would turn out so wrong. I never thought you’d end up hating me.
By this point we understand–the rift is irreparable, the damage is permanent. The choices Helen and Rose made on that winter night were meant to secure everyone’s happiness. But when secrets are kept from families and loved ones, there will always be consequences.
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.