Author Lynda Cohen Loigman will be featured live on the Author’s Cut, Wednesday, March 29th at 9:00 pm. Click here to join the FB group, BCB Online Book Club, to start the conversation.
Lynda Cohen Loigman crafts a beautifully complex and deeply satisfying story with her debut novel, The Two-Family House: A Novel. Sisters by marriage but friends by choice, Helen and Rose share a two-family house in Brooklyn where, with their husbands, they raise their children. But one snowy winter night, the two mothers give birth at the same time and make a decision that will forever alter their lives.
With warmth and sensitivity, Lynda explores the challenges of motherhood and marriage, the effects of deeply ingrained gender biases, and the unintended repercussions of a long-held family secret. A compelling and superbly written novel, The Two-Family House: A Novel is sure to be a book club favorite.
I’m so pleased to welcome Lynda to BCB today!
Tabitha Lord: Lynda, can you tell us a little about your background? I know you have a law degree, and that you are now enrolled in a creative writing program. What was your path like from lawyer to writer?
Lynda Cohen Loigman: I went to law school right after college, but I wasn’t truly interested in legal studies. Like many English majors, I chose law school only because I didn’t know what else to do. During our first semester exam week, I pulled out my Norton Anthologies instead of working on my civil procedure outline. I read poetry instead of the tax code. I should have known then that I wasn’t supposed to be there.
The biggest clue that I should have been writing fiction came during my first day as a summer associate at a large Manhattan law firm. Summer associates rotated through three departments, and I started in Trusts and Estates. My first assignment was from a tall, silver-haired partner in the T&E department. When I got to his office, he said he was going to tell me a story. The story began with a wealthy shipping magnate and his mentally ill wife, and ended with several extramarital affairs and illegitimate children. The assignment itself was mundane – looking up inheritance laws for illegitimate children in several states and countries. But the story? That was what hooked me.
I practiced trusts and estates law for eight years at two different firms. During that time, I got married and had children. But it wasn’t until after my mother died and after I turned forty that I was ready to start writing. I enrolled in a class at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence, and I just kept going. That classroom was where I found the courage to start putting my story down on paper.
TL: One of your press releases describes The Two-Family House as a “morally complex story of love, loss, and the consequences of long buried secrets.” In my head, the choice Rose and Helen make is indefensible, but in my heart, it feels perfectly justified. I love how you’ve created this juxtaposition and all the unintended consequences that follow. Can you tell us a little about how the idea for the story developed?
LCL: As a child, my favorite stories were the ones my mother and aunts told me about growing up in a two-family house in Brooklyn. The three of them lived on the top floor, while my grandmother’s brother, his wife and their three daughters lived on the bottom. They were all very close. I loved those stories, and I knew that if I ever wrote a book, one day I would use that house as the setting.
The idea for the story came much later when my daughter was six months old. I had always wanted to have a daughter – so much so that I struck a deal with my husband about it. He wanted only two children, but I convinced him that if the first two were boys we’d try for another. The summer after her birth, there was an article in The New York Times Magazine about the use of new technology to facilitate gender selection for parents. The article struck a chord with me. Why did I want to have a daughter so much, and how far would I have been willing to go in order to get one?
After that, a new story emerged. I imagined two families – one with four sons and one with three daughters. The parents would experience longing, jealousy, and resentment, and every emotion would be intensified because of the two-family house they lived in together.
TL: You’ve created truly memorable characters and we’re allowed to follow them for decades. While all of them are affected by life’s circumstances, and by the choices they’ve made, Helen and Abe remain essentially the same, whereas Rose and Mort are transformed. Did you have a sense of where each of these characters was heading when you began writing or did they lead you?
LCL: I always knew the general path that the four characters would take, but there were still many surprises. I think the best answer to this question is that I was initially lead by a series of situations I wanted to write about – moments I wanted to make the characters go through after the night the babies were born. I wanted Helen to hear Teddy cry from behind a closed door. I wanted Rose to wander off so that Helen would have to fill out Teddy’s medical forms after a minor accident. I wanted to show an awkward holiday dinner with both families and I wanted to have a scene where Natalie sees Mort’s barren office for the first time. Those scenes, and many more, were all trials I wanted the characters to endure. As I wrote, I was constantly moving the characters toward those challenging moments, and it was in those moments that they really showed me who they were. The characters didn’t always react the way I thought they would. Mort became more likable than I initially planned, and Rose went to a much darker place. But both transformations felt authentic.
TL: Is there a character with whom you identify the most?
LCL: This is such a tough question! I relate to all the characters actually, even the men. But of all of them, I think I identify most with Judith. My parents were always very interested in my education – in fact, they were the opposite of Judith’s parents in that respect. Even so, I relate to her feelings of being an outsider, both in school and at home. I was a bookworm when I was young, just like Judith, so that is something else we share.
One thing I haven’t discussed with any readers before is the library scene when Judith feels like she has to rush home. My own mother was very “overprotective” when I was young – that’s what we used to call it. She didn’t come close to Rose’s level of anxiety, but she definitely worried excessively, so I can relate to many of Judith’s emotions in that chapter.
Finally, I respect Judith’s quiet ambition. She wants to make something of herself, and she does it without any real support. I think she is someone you root for throughout the story.
TL: For me, Rose becomes singularly unlikeable. While I certainly sympathized with her character early on, her bitterness towards Helen alters that for me. By the end of the story, it is a relief when she leaves permanently. How did you feel about her?
LCL: I think Rose is the most complex and enigmatic character in the story. While she starts out timid and downtrodden, she goes through several phases – depression, anxiety, hostility, and detachment. The living arrangements of the two-family house begin to suffocate her, and something in her snaps. For me, the loss of sympathy that we feel for her comes more from how she treats her daughters and Teddy than it does from how she treats Helen.
The moments of almost cruel indifference that Rose exhibits toward her children were the most difficult for me to write, but I think they were important to include in order to show just how broken she becomes. Showing resentment toward Helen or anger toward Mort just wasn’t enough. Eventually, the happiness of others becomes too much for Rose to bear. When she has the opportunity to escape, she jumps at it. I think that was the kindest result for her and for everyone else.
TL: Let’s talk writing craft for a minute. The first half of the book is written from Helen, Rose, Abe, and Mort’s perspectives. Later you include Natalie and Judith. How did you decide who would have their own voice?
LCL: I knew early on that I would write from the alternating perspective of the four adults. By the time I started writing, the four characters were already so developed in my mind that I didn’t want to combine their separate voices. In addition, I felt like writing from four different points of view would help me to dig deeper – it gave me the chance to fully explore each character’s motivations and insights. I just couldn’t pass up that opportunity.
When I got to the night the babies were born, however, I realized I had a problem. It was such a pivotal moment in the story, and I only wanted to tell it once, not from multiple perspectives. Obviously, the men couldn’t tell it, and it felt wrong to choose only one of the women. For a while, I toyed with the idea of telling it from the perspective of the midwife, but that really wasn’t appealing to me.
Finally, I decided to add Judith’s voice. I was excited about the idea of having one of the children tell the story of the blizzard, because I knew that a child would be the perfect unreliable narrator. She would be unsuspecting. It would be easy to keep her out of the birthing room, and she would be too naïve to ask questions, too tired to even think of them. Once I started writing in Judith’s voice, I realized how much tension and energy she brought to the story.
Adding Natalie’s voice to the narrative was a very natural addition. I didn’t even think about it. I wanted the reader to feel how strong the bond between Teddy and Natalie was, and adding her point of view accomplished that.
TL: The book begins with a prologue, which tangentially presents the inciting incident – Natalie and Teddy’s birth. Chapter 1 takes us back in time, a year before their birth, and then the story proceeds in sequence. I imagine you may have considered a few different options for how and where to begin the story. How did you decide on this structure?
LCL: I wrote the prologue to The Two-Family House: A Novel years before I wrote the story, and I kept it through every subsequent draft. There was something about starting off that way, with the musings of a nameless midwife, that I hoped would captivate the reader. In terms of the rest of the structure, I needed to go back to the point before Helen and Rose get pregnant because I needed time to establish why Helen wants a girl so badly and why Rose is so desperate for a boy. If the reader doesn’t understand that, the rest of the story doesn’t work. I always knew the story would span a few decades. In order to show the consequences of Rose and Helen’s choices, we need to look far enough into the future to make them real.
TL: I hope you plan to appropriately celebrate this amazing accomplishment and pop a bottle of champagne tonight! Once the dust settles a bit, what will you be working on next?
LCL: My next book is another family story – this time focusing on the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter. As the grandmother watches her granddaughter’s wedding plans unfold, she is reminded of her own marriage, and a secret she has kept from her family for over fifty years. The narrative flashes back to the grandmother’s days as a young woman in New York in the 1930s and 1940s. I’m most comfortable writing historical fiction, so although some of this new story takes place in the present, it was important to me to make sure that a substantial amount of the novel took place in that earlier time period. Alternating between the past and the present is challenging, but I love playing them off each other, and making connections between the two.
TL: Happy release day, Lynda! And thank you so much for chatting.
LCL: Thank you so much for having me, and for these terrific and thoughtful questions!