Anita Diamant is having a big December. Her new novel, "The Boston Girl," has been released right after the Lifetime premiere of "The Red Tent," based on her wildly successful 1997 debut.
It's easy to write dismissively of Diamant — she's a woman who writes popular fiction about women, so the whisper of "Lifetime" is almost a one-word denouncement. And to be honest, I'm of two minds about "The Boston Girl." On the one hand, it's a vivid, affectionate portrait of American womanhood. On the other, it feels at times a bit like chicken soup.
The title refers to 85-year-old Addie Baum, who tells her story in response to a question posed by her 22-year-old granddaughter: How did she get to be the woman she is today? In that sense, the novel reads like a memoir, relating Addie's coming of age in a series of episodes from her formative years.
Addie is born in 1900 and raised in Boston, the youngest daughter in a family of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Her older sisters were born abroad, making Addie the only daughter native to American soil. Her family speaks Yiddish, and her mother dislikes America, complaining "how the apples had no taste and children didn't listen to their parents." Her story begins in 1915, when she joins a library group for girls in her neighborhood settlement house: "That's where I started to be my own person."
From this reading group, Addie learns of a place called Rockport Lodge, a vacation house for women frequented by many of her friends. She saves money and goes to Rockport on her 16th birthday, leaving a note for her older sister to find in a shoe. This lodge — which did in fact exist in a seaside town in Massachusetts — is central to the novel, both as setting and symbol. Addie visits Rockport several times, and each visit, though straightforward on its surface, is an assertion of her independence in an era when women's suffrage was a contentious issue.
As she tells her granddaughter: "Don't let anyone tell you things aren't better than they used to be."
Diamant writes about early 20th century Boston with absolute confidence, and the historical elements of the novel are elegantly incorporated. It's a pleasure to watch Addie find her place in the world, navigating jobs and love affairs in a time when misogyny was part of the national landscape and female independence was difficult to attain. "I used to dream about how wonderful it would be on the day I went to live on my own," she says about moving into a boardinghouse against her parents' wishes, "but what I remember about that day is running to the curb and throwing up."
The novel floats on Addie's vibrant, conversational voice, which is often poignant and humorous, albeit occasionally silly. ("Being eighty-five gives you perspective. It also gives you arthritis. Maybe you should stitch these pearls of wisdom on a sampler. Do you even know what a sampler is?") Diamant's prose is clear and simple, and she has a great ear for anecdote. The novel is full of moments that reverberate with life — a bad date at a speak-easy in a Chinese laundry, a picnic with a shell-shocked veteran who runs from fireworks on a beach.
Unfortunately, there is a superficial quality to "The Boston Girl" that detracts from its resonance. For a narrative that spans a life, it's uncannily devoid of regret and complexity, and Addie is often cheerful to the point of thoughtlessness. Here she is on ethnic diversity in Boston: "But it was pretty much live and let live, as I remember it." Or her husband of several decades: "Not that he was perfect. Your grandpa snored like a buzz saw and I never saw him eat a piece of fresh fruit." The novel is not without its share of tragedy, but none of it cuts deep. I found myself rolling my eyes at a funeral scene with half-sized caskets and the mournful remembrance, "He liked peas and his first word was ball."
Diamant has built her career on taking women seriously, and Addie Baum is another strong heroine with an irrepressible voice. Yet if there's a lot to admire in this book, I wish "The Boston Girl" had a little more bite, more substance. It's pleasant enough to read, but in the end it just isn't that memorable.
Cha is the author, most recently, of "Beware Beware."
The Boston Girl
Scribner: 336 pp., $26