What are the limits of “anguish and loss”? wonders Wanda Nakatani, one of four girlfriends whom Valerie Miner portrays in her engrossing novel, “All Good Women.” In this story spanning 1938 to 1950, the quartet bravely grapple with such questions while the exigencies and upheavals of war transform them into resilient, introspective women.
Miner, a teacher at the University of California at Berkeley, begins by showing Wanda, Moira Finlayson, Ann Rose, and Teresa (Teddy) Fielding as students in typing class at a San Francisco business school. Outwardly, they seem poised and untroubled, but each has already experienced tragedy.
Ann’s father cruelly eliminated every trace of Jewishness from the Rose household, thus forcing his wife into “confusion, grief, and rage” before mental illness ruined her. In addition, Ann still mourns for her dear friend, Carol, who was found in a bathtub with her wrists slit. Wanda’s father committed suicide after the FBI persecuted him simply for being Japanese. During her infancy, Moira’s father died of tuberculosis. Teddy’s family came to California from the Oklahoma dust bowl, where Depression-era hardships nearly destroyed them.
The rapport among these girls deepens, so they decide to share a house. The Pearl Harbor bombing stuns them all, especially Wanda, who must endure compulsory resettlement in Arizona along with thousands of Japanese-Americans, including her mother and two siblings. Even when family responsibilities overwhelm Wanda, dreams of being a crusading journalist linger in her mind.
Filled with youthful determination, Ann journeys to London to work at a hostel for Jewish refugee children. Although she intends to sidestep demanding entanglements, she agonizes when two extraordinary people earnestly seek her love--Reuben Litman, her Austrian colleague, and Leah, the winsome 6-year-old desperately hoping to be adopted by Ann.
Back in San Francisco, mutual need engenders an explosive situation involving Moira and Teddy, who is a lesbian. Both have recently been jilted; Moira feels particularly distraught because she is pregnant with the child of her ex-beau, Randy. She and Teddy commiserate, then become physically intimate, yet their burgeoning relationship is jeopardized when Randy suddenly arrives to reclaim Moira’s affection.
Throughout “All Good Women,” Miner evokes the turbulence of this period by prefacing each chapter with terse headlines such as “RAF Bombs Cologne” and “Uprising in Warsaw Ghetto.” In this manner, the author effectively reminds us that the four protagonists had to confront searing personal crises at a momentous time when nothing was safe.
With laudable perceptiveness, Miner probes issues that are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago: the rampant bigotry that deprives Wanda of her father and her liberty, Moira’s uncertain sexual orientation, Ann’s wariness of commitment, and Teddy’s adjustment to her own homosexuality. The novel’s rewarding conclusion also has contemporary overtones, for the women’s hard-won “shared sense of potential” finally guides them safely beyond “anguish and loss” to equanimity.