Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Triangulations, by Lorine Kritzer Pergament

This volume, released in March, 2022, contains the novella Triangulations and a handful of short stories by Lorine Kritzer Pergament. The novella reveals the lives of several generations of women in one family, linked through artistic ambition, love, and tragedy. Protagonist Susie wrestles with her reluctance to have children, and as we follow her journey of learning more about her grandmother, a cousin of that generation, her own mother whom she never knew, and her sisters, we come to empathize with her hesitation. 

Pergament moves through time, sometimes inhabiting characters, sometimes viewing them through Susie’s imagination, prompted by stories her older sister is able to conjure from photographs. Their grandmother Fannie survived the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 in New York’s Lower East Side, in a single day meeting the love of her life, and losing her best friend to the inferno. And fire continues to plague the family – Fannie’s daughter, Sylvie, suffered burns in a kitchen fire, with her baby – Susie – delivered a month early while she died from her injuries. Susie’s father won’t speak of Sylvie, and the young caretaker he soon marries, Clarisse, only came into the family after her death. She must turn to her older sister to learn more about their mother. 

Susie is a novelist, and her longtime boyfriend, Zach, who’d like to marry and start a family with her, is an up-and-coming painter. While she loves him, and cherishes their creative connection, having children is a fraught subject. The splintering of her own life renders her wary, and as she delves into the histories of her grandmother, and her grandfather’s cousin, Berta, she doubts a woman can both raise children and sustain a career. Even as she admires their accomplishments, she wonders how much more they could have done, without family demands impacting their ambitions. 

Reading Berta’s diary about living in France from the end of WWI, through Nazi occupation and into the decades beyond, Susie is struck by her predecessor’s adaptability, and her perspective. When she and her husband return to Paris after WWII, they find his optometry shop utterly smashed and burned. She writes: “Charles is despondent. He created that business from nothing, but is trying to be philosophical. We are all alive. What’s left are details.” Susie riffs on this: “We are all alive, the rest is details… Was having a child just a detail? Is being alive all that really matters?” While she appreciates the differences between Berta and Charles’ precarious situation and her own more secure one, she’s not prepared to write off the importance of her creative work as some mere “extra” – to thrive is steps beyond “we survived,” and represents more acutely her dilemma. 

Yet she also grasps the depth of Berta and Charles’ love, and how central that was to who they were. She finds resonance in Berta’s description of Charles as her “other half” – it’s how she feels about Zach. But, as he makes clear, that fundamental disagreement over having children will end their relationship. When we reach points in life where everything seems to be working, we want to make time stop. We know we can’t, but the desire to prevent change is our deepest self-deceit. Susie, recognizing this, has to abandon the version of life with Zach that fit so comfortably, and make a choice. Learning about the courageous women who preceded her, she’s better grounded to be fair to herself, and to Zach. 

Pergament writes with assurance about both the interior world of relationships and the larger sphere of events we cannot control, offering her readers plenty to ponder. 

Her short stories reveal the tensions and pitfalls in relationships. In “What Goes Up” we see a young mother at the end of her tether. In “Smell the Roses on Your Own Time” we watch a marriage unravel. “A Unique Package” surprises the best friend and confidante of a woman who has just died. And “Lost” visits the world of dementia from the inside. Pergament invests her women with humor, curiosity, and iconoclasm in contrast to the often straitlaced world they inhabit. People around them may find their behavior surprising or inappropriate, but this writer is in their corner showing why they live as they do, challenging her readers about our tendency to judge those who step outside the lines.

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