As Close To Us As Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner

Reviewed By

Elizabeth Poliner’s novel As Close To Us As Breathing, takes place in the summer of 1948, when the three Syrkin sisters—Vivie, Ada, and Bec, pack up their lives and families and make their annual trek to their summer home on Bagel Beach. For the sisters, their Connecticut beach cottage is a point of pride and memory. It stands as a proud testimony to the thrift and foreword thinking of their immigrant parents, who came from a small village in Russia and were able to buy the home and hold onto it through the Depression. It stands as a repository of memories— of childhood summers—and remains the place to which they can still come and not be defined solely by their roles as wives and mothers. Yet, in the midst of all of that, their beach home also stood as an unfortunate testament to the pervasive racial and ethnic segregation. Bagel Beach, where the Syrkin sisters have their cottage, is the section of the shore reserved for Jews. Jewish families from New England and Mid-Atlantic areas came and, as the narrator, Ada’s daughter Molly Leibritsky, notes, “…kept close, crowded, because in 1948 there were so many places Jews still couldn’t go, so many covenants, formal and informal, restricting us from neighborhoods, resorts, clubs.” Molly imagines Bagel Beach to be a smaller version of Israel: “…another small and sandy place that would offer solace to the beleaguered Jews of the world.” Yet, during the summer of 1948, the beach resort serves as a lodestone of tragedy. The simmering unspoken animosity among different white ethnic groups—Irish, Italian, and Jewish— comes to a head for the Syrkin sisters when Davy, Ada’s youngest son, is killed by Sal, the Italian who drives the Good Humor ice cream truck.

The death of eight-year-old Davy Leibritsky comes as no shock to readers, as the death is announced in the novel’s very first sentence. Molly Leibritsky , Ada’s middle child and only daughter, uses the tragedy of Davy’s death to explore the lives of the three sisters and their lovers, husbands, and children, those most immediately affected, to reveal the ways this tragic summer redefines them as a family. Through Davy’s death, with its sweeping tide of changes, Poliner shows how flimsy the foundations on which our lives stand.

Long before Davy is killed, the members of the family are wrestling with inner personal turmoil. Vivie works to be civil to her sister, while still stinging from Ada’s long ago betrayal; Howard, Ada’s oldest son, tries to live up to his father’s expectations; Nina, Vivie’s daughter, struggles to understand her sexual identity; Bec, Vivie and Ada’s youngest sister, who is unmarried and childless. feels like a stranger in her own family. Poliner holds each character up to the light so the reader may seem them from various angles. Take Mort Leibritsky, Vivie’s beau who ultimately chooses Ada. Described as “a serious man” who holds a grudge against his teenage son Howard for missing the morning minyan, Poliner shows Mort praying in his community synagogue:

Standing there, hand clenched on the metal handle, one foot on the sidewalk outside the building, the other foot a step inside, he could almost taste it, the sweetness of entering the shul, the satisfaction he’d feel just a moment later, after closing the door behind him to that whirlwind of American society, that melting pot of everybody from everywhere. For a few minutes each day, behind the synagogue’s shut door, my father could pretend it was just them: the Jews. They were in a little shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe, doing what Jews always did, and they weren’t getting blown to pieces. Or, he sometimes imagined of late, they were in Israel, the Israel that could be once the current truce matured into a lasting peace.

Through this description, Poliner shows Mort’s eagerness for prayer, his adherence to ritual, and offers us a glimpse into his exacting standards for his son.

By depicting the ways in which disappointments in love have redirected the lives of Vivie and Bec, the oldest and youngest Syrkin sisters, Poliner shows how one change, one decision, can alter the entire plan of our lives. After Ada steals and marries her beau, Vivie assumes an independence she might otherwise never have known—living on her own as a single woman, working in a doctor’s office, and ultimately marrying a man to whom she is better suited. Bec, the youngest Syrkin daughter and the first to become engaged, waited at home for her beau to complete college, only to be cast aside for a woman with a Smith degree. Left adrift, with the task of reconfiguring her life, Bec “…stumbled into that life of making dresses, landing upon it only after being loosed from the planned life, the far more typical one that during her long engagement to Milton Goldberg she’d assumed was her destiny.” These depictions of personal transformation through tragedy tease readers with hope that the sisters and their families will exhibit a similar conquering resilience. Yet, for all that the novel focuses on the lives of the three Syrkin sisters and their tumultuous paths to marriage and motherhood, Poliner’s novel is about far more than finding domestic bliss. The summer that Davy dies is one in which many of the family members hover on the brink of personal discovery. On the brink of all of this change, Bec, who is involved in a long-term affair with her boss, considers the difficulty of involving him in her family’s life:

…as long as she kept her worlds separate—the independent and private life in New Haven, the family life in Woodmont—then she could have them both. But she couldn’t keep them together; she knew that as well as she knew anything… A stranger at Shabbos and the family might as well be eating regular rather than challah bread. A gentile at the table and everyone would know the difference in an instant, would feel the dilution, the diminution of everything they valued. Indeed what she was doing with Tyler was so far outside the bounds of acceptability that no one even suspected it, not even after all these years. Yes, to have everything she wanted with Tyler was to lose everything she had with her sisters.

She is not the only member of her family for whom the weight of culture and custom hangs heavily. Other characters are contemplating making or revealing major life decisions that may strain the bonds of family. With the exception of Ada, nearly everyone else sacrifices some part of him or herself to the twin altars of family and custom. Though Davy’s death is the major plot element around which the novel is structured, the digressions into the past reveal what else is lost and show the way his death pushes family members into different and heretofore unimagined directions and life paths. Poliner uses Davy’s death to superimpose the lives they would have chosen for themselves with the ones they punish themselves with after staring tragedy in the face.

Amina Gautier is the author of three award-winning short story collections: At-Risk, Now We Will Be Happy, and The Loss of All Lost Things. At-Risk was awarded the Flannery O’Connor Award, The First Horizon Award, and the Eric Hoffer Legacy Fiction Award. Now We Will Be Happy captured the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction and the Florida Authors and Publishers Association President's Book Award. The Loss of All Lost Things was awarded the Elixir Press Award in Fiction. Her work has appeared in Agni, Callaloo, Glimmer Train, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Review among other places. Gautier teaches in the Department of English at the University of Miami. More from this author →