Hilda and Pearl


from The Los Angeles Times

Sisters-in-law Hilda and Pearl take such delight in each other's company that Hilda's 11-year-old daughter Frances often feels left out of the magic circle created by her mother and her aunt.

The reader has no idea what Pearl's son, Simon, thinks. A few years older than Frances, he's pensive and remote, a non-participating observer of the activities of this uncommonly close family. Frances is the designated commentator, telling the story of her parents and her aunt and uncle as she discovers the complexities of their relationships.

The novel is set in Brooklyn, moving backward to the 1930s when the two brothers courted and married their wives; forward to the war years and to the McCarthy era, when Frances' schoolteacher father, Nathan, loses his job and becomes a casualty of the anti-communist hysteria of that decade. He had been a passionate liberal as a student, a premature anti-fascist ardently supporting left-wing causes and yearning to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight Franco.

His younger brother, Mike, is both more stolid and more realistic, content with his routine job as a court stenographer and unwilling to risk his precious security. Although Nathan and Mike constantly argue, their political differences never alter their affection for one another. To a casual observer, the love between the two couples would seem idyllic and enviable.

Frances, of course, is anything but a casual observer. A precociously intelligent and imaginative child, she has an ideal collaborator in her friend Lydia, whose fantasies are even more baroque.

Left alone in the apartment one day, Frances snoops through her mother's bureau and discovers a paper bag containing a pair of baby shoes. On the bag is the enigmatic word racket, more than enough for the two girls to invent an elaborate scenario involving the mysterious find. They bury the shoes under a tree in the park, and entertain themselves for months with speculation about them.

This early segment of the novel is told entirely from Frances' pre-adolescent perspective, the prose deliberately kept naive. As the story unfolds, Frances matures and her language acquires more depth and resonance. Nothing that the two young girls imagined is half so fascinating as the truth that both unites and separates Pearl and Hilda, Nathan and Mike.

Pearl is the charmer of the quartet, a tall golden-haired beauty who makes a genuine effort to win the affection of Nathan and Hilda. She's so winsome, so accommodating and eager for acceptance that she's soon beloved by everyone including her Old World mother-in-law. Pearl's only fault is her excessive desire to please, and it's that innocent wish for connection that leads to the first crisis.

Pearl is impulsive; Mike surprisingly cautious for someone so young. Nathan, not nearly as dashing or handsome as his brother, is intense and magnetic, traits that his sensible wife, Hilda, loves but doesn't share.

Like Mike, Hilda is careful and orderly. Her personality balances Nathan's mercurial disposition, while Pearl's warmth seems exactly what Mike needs. Even so, the notion that opposites attract is merely an observation, not a law. There are exceptions, and one such exception forcefully drives the novel forward.

A single extraordinary event leads to a second. Unlike the first, this is a genuine tragedy, not an aberration that can be smoothed over and eventually ignored. There are two unforgettable characters in the title of this accomplished novel, but only one genuine heroine.

What might otherwise be the hermetic story of a single family is enlarged and expanded by Alice Mattison's intimate knowledge of the distinctive political and social milieu that formed her four central characters; Depression-era Brooklyn, a time and place that has served hundreds of American writers well but seldom so dramatically or so poignantly.

Frances' growing awareness of her individuality and her increasing understanding of the world around her combine to make "Hilda and Pearl" a memorable excursion on the classic voyage of self-discovery.

Elaine Kendall

from Publishers Weekly

Accomplished poet, novelist (Field of Stars) and short-story writer (Great Wits) Mattison adds to her laurels with this quietly suspenseful, psychologically penetrating novel, which is both a perceptive study of adolescence and a dramatic exploration of family relationships. When 11-year-old Frances Levenson finds a pair of baby shoes hidden in her mother Hilda's bureau drawer, she begins to unravel a secret involving her parents, her aunt Pearl and her uncle Mike. Viewed partly through Frances's pre-adolescent consciousness and partly through flashbacks to the early years of the two couples' marriages in the 1930s, the novel also portrays a segment of American society: liberals (socialists, Communists) who supported the doomed anti-Franco forces in the Spanish Civil War, and who were themselves often victims of the McCarthy witch hunts two decades later. The sons of Jewish immigrants, Nathan, Frances's father, and Mike, his younger brother, are opposites: Nathan is an idealistic Brooklyn high-school English teacher with a burning social conscience; Mike, who has changed his surname to Lewis, is a pragmatic court stenographer contemptuous of Nathan's politics but also cowed by his brother's dignity. A seduction, a baby of disputed paternal parentage and a tragic death mark the shifts in family dynamics that paradoxically bring Hilda and Pearl closer, though one is a victim and makes a noble sacrifice and the other is a taker with magic charm. Mattison has a luminous ability to render a preteen's fantasy life and conversation with her peers, conveying Frances's confusion about adult behavior. But it is in depicting the title characters that Mattison excels, evoking in keenly observed prose the animosities, yearnings for intimacy and currents of sexual energy that run between them. Small fireworks of surprise detonate at intervals in this compelling narrative, related by Mattison with disarming simplicity and economy, and with gripping effect.

from Booklist

Mattison's forte for creating characters of depth and interest underlies the satisfying resonance of her new novel. Her tale of two women married to brothers is imbued throughout with the somber overtones of its McCarthy-era setting. Rarely is the power of passing time probed with the keen insight Mattison exhibits here, as a complex relationship develops between Hilda and Pearl--reflected at times through the eyes of Hilda's young daughter, Frances. Charting a profoundly emotional course, Mattison reveals the significant weight, and the mystery, of the secrets women share. Mattison's detached, systematic tone proves to be heightened storytelling--with a shimmering finale.

Alice Joyce