With her new novel, told in lush prose through a carousel of viewpoints, Anna Solomon proves once again to be one of the most ambitious and fearless writers today. Her new novel “Leaving Lucy Pear” is a sweeping story of two women in Prohibition Era New England whose worlds intersect over the care and concern of an inimitable child.
I spoke with the Jewish author and Kveller contributor in Brooklyn:
Your first novel, “The Little Bride,” followed a 19th century Russian Jewish mail order bride shipped to the plains of South Dakota. Your new novel also has a historical foundation, with a Jewish bent. What was the impetus behind “Leaving Lucy Pear”?
There were two main sparks. As a child, we had these pear trees down below our house. Every year the fruit would all disappear. We never knew where it went. So that always stayed with me.
Then, a few years ago, my stepfather, who reads a lot of history books, gave me “The Sage of Cape Ann,” which is a very dramatic telling of things that weren’t necessarily dramatic about Cape Ann—which is where I grew up, in Gloucester, MA. In it, I found a section about this wealthy Bostonian woman who was summering on Cape Ann and suffering from a nervous disorder, and because she had connections with the navy, she had requested that the whistle buoy, which had been installed off the coast to warn fishermen and to keep sailors safe, be removed. Which I found fascinating.
Then there was an addendum that said, The next year it was recorded that Mrs. So and So had gotten married and therefore was feeling much better so that the whistle buoy could be put back in. I found that compelling, both the nervous disorder and that the marriage “made it better.” On the plot level—what if, when the whistle buoy was taken out, something happened? What if there was a consequence to it? It’s hard to say exactly how that came together with the pears because that part of the process is always mysterious, but the stories started forming.
You’ve written two novels since becoming a parent. As a mother of two, what does your day look like? How do you find balance and carve out that time for your writing?
It’s not easy, though I am aware that a lot of people have it harder. I have a supportive and present husband, for starters. But my writing life has changed dramatically since my kids were born. The biggest difference is that I am awake for many, many hours before I start to write. And for all the sweet moments that may pepper that time, there are always some emotionally trying ones, as well.
So once the kids are off to school it can be a little tough to transition. But one of the many blessings of parenthood is that the limited time I have forces me to just do it—whatever “it” is.
Both of your novels feature mothers—in very different circumstances—trapped by societal expectations of their roles. Both bristle against expectation, staging quiet protests. How has motherhood affected your material or writing style?
Becoming a parent has certainly influenced my subject matter. In my fiction, the influence is more indirect: i.e. my own feeling at times that my selfhood was being threatened or lost in motherhood may have something to do with the fact that I wrote a book (“Leaving Lucy Pear”) about a woman who abandons her baby. The connection wasn’t conscious, but I’m sure it was there, as are many others.
In my personal essays, I write about these things more directly. And I also co-edited an anthology of birth stories called “Labor Day: True Birth stories by Today’s Best Women Writers,” which obviously grew out of my intense fascination with the process of becoming a mother.
The main character’s Jewishness is essential yet inconspicuous, inseparable from the complex fabric of her being. At what point did you conceive of Bea as being a Jewish character?
I think she was always Jewish. Why? I don’t know. Probably because I am, and that’s how it formed. I do remember doing a bunch of research to make sure there would have been Jews on Cape Ann at that time, summering there, having their second homes. I grew up there as a Jew. It was a strange place to grow up as a Jew because there weren’t many of us. The synagogue draws people from all over because it’s not like being in Boston or just outside where there are large communities, which I appreciated in retrospect because it meant there was more diversity.
Years ago, you wrote a wonderful piece for Kveller about the ambivalence you felt toward your daughter’s fervent Yiddishe neshama (soul). It’s funny because we used to call my son “the little rabbi” when he was a toddler. His passion was also once so pure, unfettered. Has her position changed?
Yeah. She’s 8 now, and goes to Hebrew school. She likes it, most of the time, but I do think that her earlier exuberance mellowed. That said, my son is 4 and goes around singing Purim songs all the time. Now that I have more perspective, I think it’s more about that age than anything. Kids love ritual, and songs. I think we all do, we just get a little more (or a lot more) skeptical as we age.
In that article you mention the estrangement and disappointment from aspects of Judaism. And yet, you continue to engage in Jewish material. Why?
I don’t think I really have a choice. I mean, when I started out writing fiction I actually left Jews out of it entirely—you could argue that was a pretty solid attempt at self-erasure. But that started to change. I don’t think it was conscious, but it must have been a deep recognition that if I was going to write truthfully, and yes, the best fiction has to be true, then I needed to write about Jews. My Jewish characters, of course, are constantly wrestling with what it means to be Jewish in non-Jewish communities. They are insiders and outsiders at once. These are all things that grow out of my own experience.
How does your Jewish identity, fraught as it may be, factor into your parenting?
I don’t know. I feel like we are mostly groping along in the dark, doing our best without really knowing what that looks like. I will say that moving back to New York, which is not where I grew up, does help normalize being Jewish for both me and my kids. But I also want to imbue them with the sense of being of a much larger community. Is there a way to be solidly in one’s faith without being insular? One thing I’m trying to do is get the kids involved in as many acts of tzedakah as possible.
What are you currently working on?
It’s a novel set in three different time periods: contemporary, 1970s, and ancient Persia, and it involves the book of Esther. But that is all I can say. It’s still taking shape.
Luckily, we’re doing a giveaway, so you are able to get your hands on a free copy of her book “Leaving Lucy Pear.” We chose five winners on Thursday, August 4th. Enter below: