Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant

In one of the book clubs that I belong to, the only criteria we have for choosing books is that they be written by women. Booker prize nominees tend to foster good discussion, so I thought it would be safe to suggest Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs. Then, when I started reading it, I had the sinking feeling of having chosen badly (and how that would reflect upon me in the group). The opening scene involves the spontaneous, luxury purchase of a new dress. A book about shopping? Uh oh.

The book is not shallow, as I had initially feared. An article of clothing plays a crucial role in the plot, but revealing what garment it is would be a spoiler for anyone who hasn't read it. It is about Vivien Kovacs, a child of Hungarian immigrants, growing up in London, unaware that her parents are Jewish. She has one uncle, also living in London, about whom she knows very little, except that he served time in jail for being a slum landlord. Vivien craves information about her family history, and so she visits her uncle Sandor without her parents' knowledge.

The book group's discussion of this novel was long and lively. We were especially intrigued by the differences and animosity between two brothers raised in the same family and who had experienced similar hardships in World War II. The relationship between Vivien and her mother was also very interesting. I was pleased, in the end, to have chosen this novel.

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