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Three Daughters: A Novel    by Letty Cottin Pogrebin order for
Three Daughters
by Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Three Daughters is the story of three half-sisters, daughters of a famed rabbi; of the secret that has held them apart, and the hard-earned wisdom that eventually brings them together again. While all three are estimable women, the youngest Shoshanna is the most well-adjusted, aside from an obsessive need to order her life and the lives of others. We meet her as a 'wild-eyed middle-aged virago' making forays onto a busy highway to retrieve her Filofax which has blown away and is littered across the road.

We eventually learn of an event in Shoshanna's fiery youth that turned her into the 'archenemy of disorder' and drives her current compulsions. This wonderful opening, in which the 'asphalt looked like a hundred bulletin boards run over by a Mack truck' sets the scene for the introduction of Shoshanna's big worries about her incipient fiftieth birthday, the planned (millennial) year end visit of her father Sam, and the 'Leah Problem'. Should she attempt to reconcile her 'diva of disaster' sister with her father, to whom Leah has not spoken for thirty-five years?

Rachel and Leah are Shoshanna's half sisters, products of her parents' previous marriages, but Shoshie was unaware of Leah's existence until her teens, and Leah has never forgiven her once beloved father for leaving her to a manic mother's care; the mystery of why he did so drives the story. Leah, an English professor and one of the founders of the women's movement is a touchy genius with 'hot buttons which rivaled in number and complexity the instrument panel of a 747.'

The disorder which attacked Shoshanna's Filofax soon hits her sisters' lives as well. The 'fanatically finicky' Rachel has been long despised by Leah for her conformance to the traditional woman's role and for her ability to find a factoid for every occasion. Rachel has to deal with menopausal interruption of her sex life, and then with a major dissonance in the comfortable life that she has had to that point. And revelation of a secret in Leah's immediate family does serious damage there as well.

Shoshanna has always been in the middle of the two sisters, who used to be best friends but for decades have been on two ends of a spectrum: suburban housewife and radical feminist. As events unfold, they begin to see themselves and each other in new ways, and to understand the damage that lies do to relationships ... 'The longer a secret is buried, the more ballistic it is when exposed, its fallout more damaging than the facts one meant to conceal.'

These three daughters are, each in her own way, remarkably strong women, who cope with tragedy and disaster, and learn from their mistakes. Along the way they share a great deal of wisdom with the reader - I especially enjoyed Leah's essay on housework, Mess as Metaphor, and appreciated the advice that Shoshie received from various women in her life on turning fifty.

There is finally a resolution of the mystery that underlies this novel in a December 31, 1999 denouement in which the unforgiving Leah finally finds an answer, 'A time to tear and a time to mend.' I recommend Three Daughters to you as a deeply engaging read about women who have lived real, full, and entertaining lives. Don't miss this one.

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