Ok, folks, here we are in a new year, finally addressing the book whose ridiculous cover was the first to pop into my head when I first imagined the rumpus room reads reviews - Belva Plain’s 1978 best-seller “Evergreen.” It’s the multigenerational sweeping tale of Anna, a poor Jewish orphan girl who flees her pogrom-plagued shtetl in Poland to come to America.
Anna starts off in a turn-of-the-century Lower East Side sweatshop, moves up to being the maid of a rich Jewish family that’s been in New York for a few generations, then falls in illicit love with Paul, the son of the family, only to have him marry someone else. So she marries Joseph, the blah pious nice Jewish boy she’s been unenthusiastically dating, and has a family with him while he makes them plenty rich from starting a post-WWII construction company that craps out tract housing in the suburbs. But the whole time a secret ember burns in her sinful heart for that jerky old money rich dude Paul (“oh Anna, you’re so beautiful” is like basically the crux of their magical love, even though she’s super classy and cultured and stuff), and there’s a paternity secret from this one time she had to get a loan from him to start her husband’s company, and she’s super guilty about it and then like literally every horrible thing you can imagine happening to a Jewish immigrant family between the beginning of the 1900’s and the 1970’s happens to them. That’s right, they were briefly denied a country club membership. But in the end, Joseph and Anna’s shared belief that family is the most important thing in the world dominates all and becomes the moral of the story.
Just look at the cover of this novel. That’s feisty red-headed Anna in the middle there, sporting a pair of eyes last seen floating bodiless at the end of an ‘80s music video. Feisty red-headed heroines were sort of Belva Plain’s thing. We sort of love Belva Plain’s pen name, don’t we? Surprisingly, Belva was a real and actual Belva, and only the “Plain” was false (changed from Offenberg, which reads like a mouthful of gefilte fish jelly). There’s nothing “plain” about that font, though. Can’t you just hear the theme music crescendo as this overwrought “Evergreen” emblazons the screen at the opening credits of the miniseries? “Evergreen” actually was a miniseries in 1985, starring Lesley Ann Warren, best known as Ms. Scarlett in the “Clue” movie that same year, as Anna, and coarsely handsome “John Gotti” actor Armand Assante as her boring husband. I also discovered while researching this review that “Evergreen” is just the first in a series of five books about the Werner family, Werner being Paul’s last name of course. Back to the cover. Who are those guys on either side of Anna? Hats Magee over there on the left looks too shifty to be Joseph but too working class and unhandsome to be Paul. Mister Mustachio is enraged that they let riff raff like you into his favorite fancy old timey gentleman’s health club. The caliber of this establishment drops rapidly with each passing democratic administration, fumes Mustachio. The house in the middle is undoubtedly Anna’s unwieldy country dream home Joseph hates but purchases to make Anna happy, because he’s that kind of guy.
I finished reading this book over half a year ago. I strongly associate it with a short but lovely trip I took to Panama City, Florida last May. If you’ve never been to any of the beaches of the Florida panhandle, aka the Emerald Coast, then you have no idea what you’re missing. You probably hear “redneck riviera” and think gross muddy water, but the sand is like powdered sugar and the water is more turquoise Caribbean fantasy perfect than in any other part of Florida I’ve ever been to, and I lived in the Sunshine State for three years. And Panama City itself, with its spring break notoriety, was surprisingly mid-century charming. I spent a good chunk of the four day getaway sitting on the beach behind our funky little hotel turning the musty pages of “Evergreen” and allowing myself to be carried away to the richly-drawn world of Jewish New York in the first half of the twentieth century.
Belva does a great job painting the historical scenery of this book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially for its transportive effects. Her writing and characters can be a little stiff, though. My people (the Jews, of course) are a colorful and emotional people. She writes about Anna’s tsuris but we don’t really FEEL her tsuris. It’s all very contained and polite, even the adulterous passion. In fact, even though I know my mom read this book, I feel like the Jews depicted in this book are more my mannered grandma’s kind of people. They’re not going to make a scene. Right now, I am two thirds of the way finished reading a rumpus room-tastic eighties novel about another Jewish family that feels like the child of “Evergreen.” It’s a splashy trashy mess and I can’t wait to review it for you next month!