Elizabeth Poliner, author of Mutual Life & Casualty, gets the central tragedy of her latest novel out of the way on page one: the beloved youngest child in a close-knit Jewish family dies. The action revolves around the before, during and after of this catastrophe, in the summer of 1948.
The story is narrated by Molly, the daughter of one of the three sisters who jointly own the Connecticut beach house they and their kids flee to in the summers. The rest of the family includes Molly’s charming and aggravating older brother, Howard; their bookish cousin, Nina; their aunts, Vivie and Bec; father Mort and uncles Leo and Nelson. All of their lives take unexpected detours after the death of Davy. Yet the detours aren’t terrible; the family may have been changed by tragedy, but they weren’t destroyed by it.
Poliner’s characters are memorable. There’s Molly’s mother, Ada, in all her bigoted, extravagantly loving prickliness. Molly’s father, Mort, takes his roles as husband, father, businessman and Jew with supreme seriousness; when Howard fails to show up one morning for the weekly minyan, Mort can’t let it go. Uncle Nelson, overweight and unlucky in love, keeps stashes of Tootsie rolls in his pockets and pops them at moments of high tension, even at the Shabbos meal. Vivie, Nina’s mother, is still a little sore from Ada having stolen Mort away when they were girls. Her husband, Leo, is neurasthenic. Bec is the most independent; she knows her affair with a married Catholic man will almost certainly make her an outcast. The Syrkins are as close as breathing indeed, and Bec sometimes needs to take long walks just to breathe some fresh air. Yet she always returns.
Since everyone in the novel is good, if not always nice, it’s tempting to think of As Close to Us as Breathing as lacking a villain. This isn’t quite true; the villain is inattention. Inattention by her husband and the world in general has left Ada melodramatic and bitter and her sisters frustrated. A mere moment of inattention leads to Davy’s death. The book is Molly’s attempt, finally, to give her ordinary, grief-stricken family the attention they deserve.