The Sisters Sweet – Elizabeth Weiss

This captivating story unfolds as an oral history of a family, a mother, Maude Foster Szasz from Ohio, father, Lenny Szasz, a Jew from Eastern Europe and their twin daughters Harriet and Josephine. The story hopscotches from as early as 1889 to the mid-1930s, but not in a linear fashion. Nor is it confusing. The novel opens with a freelance reporter who is writing a piece on a legendary Hollywood starlet of the thirties and forties, Josephine Wilder. The reporter starts chasing her subject’s life story immediately upon her death, so hot on the trail that when she knocks on Harriet Szasz’s door she brings the news of her twin’s death to her. Although she has been estranged from Josie for many years and presently sees her only through her on-screen work, Harry is the keeper of the authentic Josie, as opposed to the studio and movie magazine images created for her over many years: Harry invites the reporter in. The characters are complex, with backgrounds and life experiences that explain their ostensibly questionable, impulsive or selfish choices. We learn early that Maude was a star singer/dancer in a popular theater show and that an accident ended her career; that Lenny is a talented set and costume designer but is also a drunk, who cannot stay employed; that it is Lenny who desperately wants to make the twins stars of vaudeville, with Maude resisting until she doesn’t. We know quickly that Maude has a past, known to Eugene Creggs, a boyhood friend from her Ohio hometown. Eugene becomes a successful radio preacher. Maude’s family and past and Eugene’s family and past are entangled to the point that he will help her when things do not go well for the Szasz family. When they start out on stage, it is quickly apparent the twins cannot outshine the competition of other twin/chid acts on the circuit. Lenny devises a harness to join them together, representing them to the world as Siamese twins with an act that suddenly wows the crowds. The girls must always be attached to one another in public. They support the family with Maude as manager, choreographer and songwriter and Lenny creating their sketches, sets and costumes. They are as close as twins can get, from Harriet’s perspective, with a secret language and moments on stage and other times when they operate as one mentally, as well as physically. For much of the book, starting around 1928, when the twins turn fifteen, part of the family, including Harriet, land in Chicago. We learn during this period how Josephine becomes a Hollywood star. Harriet’s “job,” meanwhile, is to be the perfect Christian child, a “wise girl,” pleasing to Uncle Eugene, so he will help the family out. In Chicago, Harriet reconnects with and befriends Eugene’s daughter Ruth. who is a few years older than Harriet. Ruth and a boy Harriet meets at school give voice to Harriet’s more worldly side in her newly restrictive life. The pressure on Harriet to conform, do well in school after a scattered, spotty education while on the road, marry solidly and live the life of a virtuous housewife is enormous. She is the “good” twin, the compliant twin, the one not really cut out for fame and being an entertainer. This role is appealing to her but she is a teenager and she also sees other possibilities. Each friend and family member has a story told from Harriet’s perspective and each seems to be a fair retelling. And their stories, woven together, are fascinating and satisfying. Weiss is an enormously gifted writer, creates period backgrounds and events that were well-researched, convincing and entertaining. She touches on the full array of cultural pressures of the eras covered. She deftly gives us an image of the lives and conventions of different classes of the era and where lines are drawn, what must be kept secret, how one must portray oneself to move “up” in the world and what one sacrifices in following or not following that path. Wonderful Book!

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