A Tale of Three Sisters
“Is solace anywhere more comforting than that in the arms of a sister.”
Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s Three Daughters is the story of three very different half-sisters whose shared secrets are the only ties that bind. Rachel, Leah and Shoshanna Wasserman, an eminent Conservative rabbi’s daughters by either birth or adoption, have never felt like family, but when they gather together on New Year’s Eve at the cusp on the millennium, fireworks begin to go off.
Rachel, the eldest of the titular three daughters, is a sexually voracious wife and mother struggling to find her own identity amidst the ruins of her life. By thrusting herself full force into Torah-learning, she strives to escape the pain of a dead son, an emotionless husband, a biological father she never knew, and an adoptive father who fled the country for the milk-and-honey shores of the Holy Land and is now returning after a long absence to celebrate the coming of the New Millenium with his grown children.
Leah, the middle daughter, having become accustomed to being at the center of her parents’ disaster of a marriage, has grown up to be a radical feminist with a burning hatred for the father who abandoned her to a deranged mother who wanted her only to spite her ex.
Shoshanna is the baby, a compulsive planner whose life starts to unravel when she loses her Filofax upon the highway, appointments canceled by the indiscriminate rush of oncoming traffic. The product of the union of Leah’s father and Rachel’s mother, Shoshanna is the only person with a blood link to all, a coincidence not lost on her. She is the Krazy Glue holding her shattered mishpuchah together, organizing miserable family gatherings, interminable lunches and dinner parties that make her question her undying devotion to relatives both unappreciative and surly.
Shoshanna, who didn’t even know of Leah’s existence until her teens, is a perfect blend of her two big sisters: a wife and mother like Rachel, a rabid feminist like Leah. Her quest to reconcile her “diva of disaster” sister, Leah, with both Rachel and their father, is what drives the story.
It is no fluke that Shoshanna’s sisters’ names are laced with biblical significance—Pogrebin chose their monikers with care. Just like Jacob chose the radiant Rachel but was forced to contend with her homely sister Leah, so too did their father seem to make a conscious choice to care for Rachel, his step-daughter, over the child born of his own loins. Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah; Rachel was always first in his heart (a hurtful truth mentioned so often in Genesis that being a Leah myself, I am still bothered by the passage that relegates my namesake to being the Torah’s most celebrated ugly duckling). But despite his affections for her sister, Jacob never did forsake Leah. Rabbi Sam Wasserman did, relinquishing his natural daughter to the care of his first wife, the mentally unstable Dena, a crime so inexcusable Leah has never even allowed herself to contemplate forgiving him.
As Rachel’s marriage deteriorates and Leah’s husband falls into a depression so deep he may never emerge from it, Shoshanna works her baby sister magic, her lost planner and missed appointments giving her the time necessary to orchestrate a truce between her sisters. Once reconciled, the women form a three-pronged Wasserman trident that would make Neptune jealous. Spending time together and getting to know one another as they should have been allowed to in girlhood, they come to appreciate each other’s oddities: Leah’s obsessive grammar-correcting, Rachel’s fixation on insignificant factoids, Shoshanna’s incapacity for impulsiveness.
The author’s dead-on description of the dances families do is both eye opening and disturbing. Rachel longs to call Leah but can’t, because she hasn’t called Leah in a while. Shoshanna is afraid to take Leah to the wrong restaurant because her radical sister might find fault with her for her choice of eating establishments. Leah secretly enjoys family get-togethers, but skips them to deprive her father of the satisfaction of seeing her.
Pogrebin, the author of nine nonfiction titles (Daughters is her first novel), shows a flair for characterization that many seasoned novelists can’t match, but she falls into the trap of many first-time fiction writers—putting her personal politics on the front burner and forcing even the most apolitical of readers to identify with Jewish and feminist ideologies. But it is Pogrebin’s gift for dialogue—she infuses each sister’s speech with a caustic charm that lends realism to the story—that makes readers want to befriend these three flawed sisters who, though raised apart, grow up together as adults.