Ellen Umansky and The Fortunate Ones

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Maybe every story is a detective story. The essential unknown. The equivocal mystery. The thing that must be found out. Somebody knows something. Somebody's asking. Somebody isn't saying (has forgotten, feels immune, needs to hide, is gone). Until.

I was thinking about this as I read Ellen Umansky's debut novel, The Fortunate Ones. The story blends the echoes of the Nazi era and its kindertransport survivors with the lives of two recently orphaned grown-up sisters in modern-day Los Angeles. The binding element is a Chaim Soutine painting, which was lost by Austrian family, sold in the United States, then lost again by those two sisters. Rose, born in Austria, meets Lizzie Goldstein, one of those Los Angeles sisters, at the funeral of Lizzie's father. In the ensuing friendship many questions are asked about the painting, called "The Bellhop," that bent the trajectories of both families.

Where is that painting now?

What did that painting mean?

Who is hiding the truth?

Constructed with greatest care, The Fortunate Ones invites its readers to consider the place of objects in family history, the changeable qualities of a fixed canvas, the infringements of guilt upon life choices, and the power people have (but, tragically, often fail to use) to vanquish the unnecessary guilt in others. More important, the novel demonstrates the appeasements of friendship and the relationships that can still thrive between people who see within the other a place of hope and truth.

Umansky moves her story back and forth over time. Dialogue escalates the momentum, while Lizzie's relationships with Rose and with her own sister, Sarah, cradle the emotional tensions. Umansky's research into this painter, Soutine, infuses the story. "The Bellhop" is an imagined canvas within the real-life painter's oeuvre.

This is how we first encounter it, in the book's opening pages:
The boy in the painting was not pretty. He was too skinny in his red uniform, his face pasty and elongated. The paint was thick, thrown on; it looked as if the painter couldn't be bothered to slow down and pay attention. Rose didn't understand why her mother loved it so.
But we, the readers, come to understand. We come to see, over the course of the novel, that painting: vivid and alive.


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