How to Make a Life starts in 1905 in Kotovka, Ukraine and ends in 2012 in New York City. It’s a complex, layered story that follows four generations of a Jewish family. With so many characters to keep track of, the table of contents and the family tree are immensely helpful. Many threads are woven through this intense story, including mass murder, immigration, mental illness, neglect, poverty, wealth, adultery, family secrets, resilience, loyalty… and the list goes on.
I could not help but admire Ida, the matriarch of the family. Her determination to survive is astonishing after her husband, three of their children and her mother are murdered while tending their morning farm chores as Ida, baby Fannie and ten-year-old Bessie hide in the potato cellar beneath the kitchen of the farm house in Ukraine. By page seven, Ida and her two surviving children arrive on a cold gray January day in New York City, ready to start new lives in America–though the horrid memories of their family’s slaughter are never forgotten.
A cousin welcomes them into her already-crowded apartment and Ida finds a job in a restaurant bakery. Within a few weeks, she’s moved herself and her two daughters into a two-room apartment. Bessie is in charge of baby Fannie while her mother works. Tragedy strikes again, but somehow Ida finds the strength to carry on.
Bessie grows up, falls in love and marries Abe. Ida lives the rest of her life with them, assisting in chores and raising her 5 grandchildren. We follow each of those grandchildren as they make choices that will determine the course of their lives.
The characters’ diverse personalities are well developed. The years this author worked as an MSW social worker and clinician are particularly evident in the thought processes of Bessie’s oldest daughter Ruby, who suffers from schizophrenia. I worked for many years as a psychiatric nurse and I’ve never read a better character description of the trauma and tribulations that this disease of the mind can cause to individuals and families.
This novel will appeal to anyone interested in family epics with unexpected plot twists and unforgettable characters. It demonstrates the power of family love, forgiveness, and resiliency.