Backlist Book Review: The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman – 3.5 stars

It seems, if Goodreads is any indication, that this book is quite polarizing. Folks seem to love it or hate it. For me, however, The Two-Family House was simple a pleasant surprise. I was concerned that it might be formulaic and predictable but it didn’t, in my option, turn out to be that way at all. Cohen Loigman used a very interesting plot device to focus the reader on the long-term story arc (more about that later) and I was very grateful that she did! I truly enjoyed it and couldn’t put it down until I was finished!

The Two-Family House is the story of two Jewish families (Mort and Rose and Abe and Helen and their respective children – 3 boys/4 girls) who share an up/down duplex in Manhattan. The story begins in the late 1940s in a blizzard…the last of each couple’s children is due to be born any day and, unluckily, both children arrive in the world while the women are snowed in and can’t reach a hospital. The two children, one a boy and a one a girl, are delivered at home by a midwife while their fathers are out of town on business. The sisters-in-law have always been very close and have raised their children together so, it’s no surprise to anyone that they would deliver their last babies together.

Out of that weekend of surprises is born a secret that changes everything for the two families. Not only does the secret change the way that the two women interact, it has wide-reaching implications for the older children, the husbands and the new babies. What’s most interesting to me is that, Cohen Loigman does little to conceal the secret…by page 10, the average reader has it figured out…and focuses instead on the impact of that secret rather than allowing the reader to get caught up in the mystery. This transparency is the plot device that I referred to in my introduction and is critical, I believe, to ensuring that the book is not simply a predictable trope. While the initial secret that spawns this story doesn’t remain a surprise to the reader for long, there are still several plot points that caught me off guard. Because I always appreciate a story that can keep me guessing, I feel strongly that Cohen Loigman handled the story arc brilliantly. I was engaged with and delighted by her story from start to finish.

Two-Family is told from multiple perspectives: we read about events through the voices of Rose and Helen, Abe and Mort and Judith and Natalie (two of the daughters.) While some have complained that they found the changing perspectives confusing, I did not and really valued the opportunity to watch time pass and events transpire from the point of view of multiple members of this family. As the book is truly focused on what happens to these relationships over decades, it felt important to me to be able to understand important developments as they are happening to all of the family members.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Cohen Loigman’s book is the fact that it left me thinking: given the same set of circumstances, an opportunity and an understanding the potential outcomes, would I have made a different decision from the one that Rose and Helen make? In reading other reviews, I’ve found that many people are decidedly dismissive of their decision and have judged it inherently wrong. For me, it wasn’t quite that obvious…in a given place and time with certain pressures and interests, I can absolutely understand what drove their thinking. While I truly believe that making decisions that result in lifelong secrets is a bad idea, I put great value on writing that can make me question my own morals and judgements.

Multiple decades pass as we watch these two families grow together and fall apart…it’s a saga that allows the reader time to get to know each character and really understand what motivates them. There is no question that the adults in the story are not perfect…the men can be sexist and intractible (think Archie Bunker here), the women insufferable and selfish. There motives seem to me, however, to be good despite their genuinely flawed decisions. Ultimately, Cohen Loigman brings her story arc to a close by allowing reader to understand the impact of the women’s decisions on the lives of their husbands and, most importantly, their children.

One of the best books I read this year was This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell and I think a strong comparison can be made between these two stories. While O’Farrell is the stronger writer and her book is significantly more emotionally complex, both authors, to my mind, have created generational family sagas that follow the impact of a single decision through the years. The Two-Family House is an opportunity to plumb the human psyche and witness the impact of human fallibility over time and I think we all relish stories that give us a chance to appreciate how a single moment in time can change our lives and the lives of those around us.

To get your own copy of The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman, please click the link below:

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