The kernel of Betsy Carter’s third novel, “The Puzzle King,” is a powerful bit of family lore that takes up no more than a paragraph of her 2002 memoir, “Nothing to Fall Back On": the story of the time, in 1936, that her mother’s German-born American aunt, Flora, traveled back to her native country to get dozens of her relatives out. The gift she brought for the American consul was a copy of that year’s hottest book in the States, “Gone With the Wind.” The gift she brought for her family, Jews trapped in Hitler’s Germany, stripped of their rights under the Nuremberg Laws, was her signature on the required affidavits of support, promising to provide for them in America if they should fail to make it on their own.
“That day she signed affidavits for more than 100 people, including my parents,” Carter writes in the memoir.
“The Puzzle King” is the back story of that anecdote, a work of genealogical fiction from the late 19th century to the eve of World War II. Tracing the lives of Flora and her family, it balances the Jewish immigrant experience in New York -- both the achievement of the American dream and the curdling of it -- against the insidious anti-Semitism of Germany and Eastern Europe.
That back story begins in 1892 not with Flora but with a scrawny, 9-year-old Lithuanian named Simon Phelps. The youngest and smartest of his widowed mother’s seven children, he is sent alone across the ocean to pave their way to America, where he lives crammed with a dozen others into two windowless Lower East Side rooms. A precociously talented artist already possessed of a ferocious work ethic, he grows into a shy, serious young man who meets the lively Flora at a dance. He woos her with drawings, beginning with one of his family, their fate unknown to him all those intervening years.
Flora, who marries him, has no such hardscrabble past; she and her sister, Seema, were brought to the States as girls by relatives who live in a leafy suburb. Flora -- surprisingly, one of Carter’s blander characters -- finds peace in domesticity, nesting in Yonkers with Simon. A marketing virtuoso, he becomes the famous puzzle king of the title.
The beautiful Seema leads a more conflicted and glamorous life. Ensconced in a Park Avenue apartment paid for by her lover, a married Episcopalian, she changes her last name in an attempt to pass for a Gentile, develops a crucifix fetish and cultivates an immunity to all but the most vile instances of anti-Semitism.
What tethers even Seema to her identity as a Jew is the family she and Flora left behind in Germany: their mother and youngest sister, Margot. When Margot and her husband, Frederick, have a daughter, Edith, her American aunts and uncle fall in love with her entirely -- Flora and Simon first, on a visit to Germany, and then Seema, when they bring the girl to New York for a summer of plenty. It is concern for that child (a character based on Carter’s mother) that propels a significant amount of the action.
It’s not a bad plot, and in its quests for connection, belonging and home, it continues themes that run through Carter’s sunnier novels, “The Orange Blossom Special” and “Swim to Me.” The trouble is in the telling of it, and that’s a shame, because “The Puzzle King” hints at the far stronger book it might have been. Take this glimpse into the mind of Frederick, an intriguing but minor member of the ensemble, who experiences a psychic dissonance after Hitler’s rise:
“Part of him expected these Nuremberg Laws to be revoked. Expected any day he would receive a handwritten apology: Frederick Ehrlich, devoted patriot, and veteran of war, you will always be cherished and beloved by the fatherland. Please disregard any news to the contrary. And life, as it had been, would resume.”
The tone here is perfect, but such sureness of touch is elusive, and Carter loses grasp of it when she writes about children -- not a minor detail in a book whose first chapters chronicle Simon’s youth. Carter seems unable to imagine being inside the mind of a child and writes about them from an awkward remove.
Too often, she seems to be standing one step back from the story, sometimes a little distractedly. It would be nice, for example, when people drink wine at a 1923 picnic or serve up Manhattans in 1928, to see Prohibition mentioned, just once.
And Carter never acknowledges a central mystery: Although Simon obsesses over finding his family, he never goes back to Lithuania to search for them or hires anyone else to do so, even after he’s a wealthy man. If there’s a puzzle to “The Puzzle King,” that’s it.
Collins-Hughes is a writer and editor in New York.