Abe and Mort Berman are brothers who are as different as night and day. Abe is personable and gregarious. Mort is anti-social and acerbic. Together they run a company that makes cardboard boxes. When their father passed away they took over the business – much to Mort’s chagrin. He wanted to pursue his love of mathematics by going on to university – but his mother insisted that his math expertise was needed by Abe and the family business. Hence, they work together – and they live together in a two-family house of upper and lower flats in Brooklyn, New York.
Mort and his wife, Rose live in the lower flat with their three daughters. Though Mort loves his wife, he is extremely critical and judgmental and she feels she does not live up to his expectations of her. She loves him dearly but fears that she will never be able to make him happy. He is jealous of the fact that his brother has sons while Rose presents him with daughter after daughter…
Abe and his wife, Helen live above them with their four sons. The wives get along better than the men do. In fact they are as close as sisters. That is they did… until one stormy winter night in 1947 when they both give birth. With their husbands away on business in Philadelphia, and the storm making it impossible to reach the hospital, they procure the help of a midwife and give birth to their babies at home – on the same night. Helen has the girl she has always longed for. They name her Natalie. Grace has a baby boy at long last, whom they name Teddy.
Since that fateful night the women are no longer the close friends and confidants they once were. There is a palpable tension between them. The companionship that they both once cherished has eroded until the proximity of their houses feels claustrophobic and cloying.
Helen would like to still be friends, but Rose doesn’t want any part of it. Rose has become more and more despondent and almost psychotic. Bearing the brunt of her mother’s increasingly stifling behavior falls to Rose’s eldest daughter, Judith. Judith feels torn because she misses the close relationship she once had with her aunt Helen. Spending time with Helen now would feel like a betrayal to her mother… Very intelligent and mature for her age, Judith cannot seem to make her parents proud of her. Even when she is made the valedictorian of her graduating class, Mort feels unable to give her any kind of approval or acknowledgment.
With the continued success of their business the brothers finally feel able to move to separate houses on Long Island. The families are traumatized by this move. Helen and her sons want to stay in Brooklyn. Rose is eager to put some distance between the families at last… The youngest children, now five years old, miss each other dreadfully. Strangely Helen dotes on both Natalie and Teddy, whereas Rose ignores Natalie at every opportunity. A deal is made that the two youngest children can see each other at alternating houses every Tuesday and Thursday. This seems to suffice. It is at one of these meetings that the children find an old math text of Mort’s which brings about a closeness between Mort and the two kids. Though he had never been close to his three daughters, he has become quite fond of his little niece. They seem to understand each other…
A character-rich novel of the secrets held by two Jewish families, “The Two-Family House” is a debut that will be cherished by many. It expounds on the losses, deceptions, betrayals, torments, forgiveness, complications and misunderstandings encountered by families everywhere. It explores the whole “two sides to every story” adage with aplomb.
Lynda Cohen Loigman grew up in Longmeadow, MA. She received a B.A. in English and American Literature from Harvard College and a J.D. from Columbia Law School. She is now a student of the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, and lives with her husband and two children in Chappaqua, NY. The Two-Family House is her first novel.