It’s 1953 in small town Illinois. Our narrator, Eunice, is the daughter of a single mother, a hard enough situation made even worse by the fact her mother doesn’t want to be a mother:
My mother was dead set against me calling her Ma. When the offending word passed my lips, she pinched my chin and enunciated very slowly. […] “Baby say Mern not Mama. Baby say Mern.” She was having no doubt that with time […] I might grow into an adaptable companion whose demands were minimal, someone with whom she could discuss Cary Grant’s perfect profile, Shelly Winter’s yen for men.
Her mother prefers living mentally in Hollywood to loving the daughter before her. She can’t even say her daughter’s name at first: she’s just “Baby” as if she’s just any baby, not her daughter, Eunice. And this baby is not allowed to say one of the first words usually uttered by a child. Many families maintain a pretense of love with the props of language. Eunice isn’t allowed even that.
It’s a tribute to Dale Kushner’s talent that in her debut novel, The Conditions of Love, she can pack so much emotional reality in so few words: maternal narcissism in a sentence, family dysfunction in a paragraph.
From this start we sense the great problem of Eunice’s life: she will never find love in the relationships society sanctions, has a name for. The supposedly deepest of all loves—that of a mother for her child—has failed her from the start. We know from the beginning she will only find love in the places there are no clear paths to, in the relationships society doesn’t make space for. The Conditions of Love is the story of Eunice’s childhood and youth, in which she repeatedly finds love in one form or another, only to be forced to leave it behind, whether by her mother, by social services, or by circumstance, until a desperate gamble finally wins her a home, intimacy, a life.
Fortunately for Eunice (and for the reader), her childhood is brightened by the intermittent presence of delightful characters who care about her more than her mother does. Her downstairs neighbor, Mr. Tabachnik, encourages her to read, introduces her to opera and calls her by the pet names “Ciskalla” and “CC Dumpling,” “nicknames,” Eunice recalls, “that were music to my ears.” Her mother’s boyfriend, an ex-sailor named Sam, teaches her sleight-of-hand tricks, gets her first Christmas tree, and calls her “Dolores del Rio.”
Kushner’s repeated, implicit emphasis on the power of names is of a piece with other fairy tale elements in Conditions. The middle-century-everydayness of the world depicted in this novel—county fairs, movie magazines, and Coca-Cola—is punctuated by events of mythic power, as when a flood literally carries Eunice away from her home and into the arms of Rose, a shaman-like woman who lives alone in the forest, or when an event of Grimm-like violence changes Eunice’s life forever.
Perhaps Kushner’s greatest achievement is Eunice’s voice. She poignantly conveys the intensity of childhood experience, whether the wonder of riding a Ferris wheel (“[it] lifted us from the earth […] and the stars were distant jewels whose nearness fell away away once we swung over the top. The lake stretched out midnight blue. […] I uttered a cry as my stomach dropped”) or the acute loneliness of a friendless child facing summer vacation: “From now until September the days would be nothing more than a string of empty rooms. […] I opened one door after another, on and on…where there was not a single person or a stick of furniture.” And it’s a voice that Kushner gradually, skillfully retunes as Eunice becomes a young woman, as when she first experiences sexual desire: “the nearness of his body made mine weak. […] I wanted to be looked at and admired contrary to my own will.” And when she begins to emotionally accept her repeated abandonments: “even if you despised your family, you couldn’t separate yourself from them. They were a part of you: the cleft in your chin […] the dogtooth that showed when you smiled.”
Conditions is a meditation on the difficulties of love, of the inevitability of loss, on those who leave a gaping wound when they’re gone. Sam forever talks of his brother who died in the war. Rose keeps the little shoes of her dead child. In one of the novel’s most touching scenes, the young Eunice takes food to Mr. Tabachnik, who’s ill. When he opens the door, delirious, he stares straight past Eunice, calling out the name of his estranged wife: “‘Esterleh, Esterleh?’ he called between labored breaths at the nothing and no one that was there.”
And Kushner never leaves us in any doubt that however many wounds we suffer, however impossible other people may be, it’s almost always worth it.