In novel, ‘Small World,’ two adult sisters in Cambridge revisit their troubled childhood

As we head into the winter months, Laura Zigman’s new book, Small World, offers a warming tonic against the snow and gloom.

Zigman, a Newton native and UMass Amherst alum, is the author of five previous novels. These include the 1998 bestseller “Animal Farm” (based on the 2001 film “Someone Like You”), and the 2020 “Separation Anxiety,” which was screened by Julianne Nicholson (“Mare of Easttown “) for a limited television series. . As with his previous works, “Small World” is a mixture of depth and a mixture of heart.

Decades apart, two sisters Joyce and Lydia try to forge a new understanding of their troubled childhood and the sister they lost. Both divorced and alone, Joyce invites Lydia to stay at her Cambridge apartment while Lydia looks for a new home. Joyce, whose voice leads the “Small World”, hopes that they will build a close relationship that they have not had historically; she also knows that her older sister’s personality may still prevent it.

Although set in the present day, Zigman seamlessly weaves in Joyce’s childhood memories, contrasting them with changes in tone. In a great story, the action and conversation move at their own pace. When Joyce narrates things from her family’s life, she does so in a dream like a second person present; the kind of voice you can use when talking to yourself, recalling and reflecting on a memory.

The middle sister, Eleanor, was born with cerebral palsy; he was only ten years old when he died. Joyce and Lydia love Eleanor, but it’s a complicated love, filled with frustration and resentment. In public, the girls were aware of Eleanor’s “yellow teeth, her drool, her voice…the smell…when she needs to be changed”. Most of all, they are angry that Eleanor is the only daughter of their parents, especially their mother.

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Zigman writes insightfully about the painful pull of a family raising a severely disadvantaged child, especially in the 1970s when the options were often home care with little help or under-resourced institutions. .

During Eleanor’s life, their mother Louise became an advocate for the rights of the developmentally disabled, storming into Eleanor’s care and hosting fundraisers and activists. After Eleanor’s death, Louise devoted more energy to the cause, lobbying Congress and meeting with governors and senators.

However, every problem that Joyce or Lydia faced – dyslexia, stuttering – was considered too small to be accepted, never resolved. With compassion, as well as unflinching assessment, Zigman shows what it’s like to grow up in a household that is emotionally skewed and ultimately gripped by grief. Lydia creates an understated character, full of drama; Joyce cultivated an attitude of loyalty, becoming almost invisible.

Joyce sits just off Harvard Square, and the inclusion of local businesses like Cardullo’s, the Harvard Book Store and Grendel’s Den make the story a good Cambridge-centric one, as the image of Zigman frequently portrays Joyce’s neighbors and concerns. Few writers do a better Cambridge launch than Zigman; not only does he know the cultural scene well enough to satirize it in a humorous way, but he does it in a way that shows that even the locals who roll their eyes at local concerns (such as what makes Halloween acceptable) will not live anywhere else. The humor here is less sustained than in “Separation Anxiety,” but no less.

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The title of the book has many meanings. Name of website around exchange of goods, services and information. Joyce likes the way Small World solves small problems; he keeps a journal of poems he makes from his text, “a form of silent meditation.” The poem is basically a rewritten message with a poetic line, but his choice elevates each question or complaint into something more, revealing a hidden desire, joy or self-righteous anger beneath the words. The poems are scattered throughout the book, offering a grace note to the story.

“Small World” may also refer to Joyce’s world, which is now expanded with Lydia as a companion, and may be replaced by the new couple who have moved into the house above her. They run noisy, and possibly illegal, hotels in their homes. The domestic conflict that ensues provides a humorous contrast to Joyce and Lydia’s relationship at times. Joyce doesn’t understand why Lydia gets so upset when Joyce brings something from her family; Lydia thinks Joyce is obsessed with the past.

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Lydia was not wrong. Joyce would admit, to himself, that he was stuck in a device of melancholy. Not by chance, but for work, Joyce is an archivist in a company that converts family photos into digital video, a job that allows him to minimize the interest in other families – the ceremonies colorful birthdays and holidays and graduations full of loving relatives – and consider “how their fates fit together… or not.”

As the weeks and months of daily life go by, the sisters working together begin to blur their boundaries. A chance but believable encounter with old family friends sheds a surprising light on the past, which may allow the sisters to see each other in a better light and understand each other better.

The short and powerful epigraph of the book is “I came to see the ruins”. – line from “Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich. It takes courage—like Joyce and Lydia bravely searching for their own history to choose to enter an old ship that has been buried deep for years—which might apply to another line in Rich’s poem: “the thing I came from:/ not the story of destruction/ the thing itself, not the myth.”

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