How to Make a Life

A Novel

Fiction - Historical - Event/Era
328 Pages
Reviewed on 09/24/2020
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Romuald Dzemo for Readers' Favorite

How to Make a Life: A Novel by Florence Reiss Kraut is a beautifully written historical novel that explores family themes and the challenges of emigration. It starts with the migration of Ida and her daughter, Bessie, from Ukraine to America in 1905. They believe they are moving to greener pastures, leaving behind a painful situation. Readers are introduced to the family line as it grows, but it experiences turmoil and challenges that they never expected. Bessie’s children have to deal with the mental illness of her daughter, Ruby. Jenny develops a love affair with her brother-in-law, and Ruby’s daughter runs off. The family also experiences death. Can this family heal and find unity amidst the vicissitudes that life throws at them?

Florence Reiss Kraut’s novel is a saga that follows a family through many decades as they struggle with different challenges. The international setting is well-written and at one point, I found myself asking the question: Must we move somewhere else to find life, or do we create it where we are planted? The theme of emigration is skillfully handled and many emigrant readers will find strong resonances with the themes and the characters. The author writes about family and how new cultures affect family dynamics and she does so in a wonderful way. The prose is gorgeous, the narrative voice compelling and hugely observant. The relationships are well-handled and they feel real to readers. There are pathos, realism, and humanity infused in the writing and I found it easy to relate to the characters. How to Make a Life: A Novel is a spellbinding family saga with strong shades of history; it is engrossing and fast-paced.

Lucinda E Clarke

From 1906 up to the present day, How to Make a Life by Florence Reiss Kraut takes us on a family journey moving from Kotovka in Ukraine to America. A large, happy, mildly prosperous farming family are victims of a pogrom, leaving only Chaya with her two youngest children alive. She escapes to start a new life in the United States, and as the story unfolds, we meet further generations of the Weissmans through the Great Depression, on through World War II, good times and bad times, love and strife. There are deaths when the family sits shiva together and births, but not every baby brings joy. In later years, well-educated, resourceful members of the family travel overseas, sometimes with dire consequences. Allegiances are forged and feuds develop, but some actions can never be forgiven. The family is Jewish, but America is a melting pot of races and cultures, and tensions arise between those more orthodox and family members who want to marry outside their religious boundaries. The past still haunts older members of the clan.

How to Make a Life by Florence Reiss Kraut was a great read. It moves seamlessly from one generation to the next. The author neatly fills in the gaps, often skipping ahead a couple of years to keep the saga moving forward. Tracing a family through almost a century, we meet many characters and, at first, it is a little tricky to keep track of who is who. But as I turned the pages, the skilfully-drawn traits, especially of those who stand out like Bessie, Ruby, Jenny, and Faye, take on a strong persona and leap off the pages. At times I wanted to weep for their sad times, at others cheer them on. Their family bonds are strong but it’s apparent, as the decades pass, the nuclear family begins to dominate and scatters far and wide. The old ways are changing and test family loyalty to the limits. A well deserved 5 stars.

Gobi Jane

In How to Make a Life: A Novel by Florence Reiss Kraut, Ida and her daughter, Bessie, move from Ukraine to the USA in 1905, leaving behind painful memories. America is their dream land, but their family will experience a lot more than anything they had hoped for. As the family grows, it experiences heartbreaks, pain, and suffering. Bessie Amdur gets married to Abe Weissman, but her family experiences a lot of struggle, having to deal with their daughter’s mental illness. Ruby’s daughter runs away, unable to handle her mother’s condition. On Ida’s side, Irene suffers the deaths of her husband and granddaughter. With pain rippling through this family, can it heal and stick together?

This is a wonderful story with strong historical, cultural, and international settings spanning from Ukraine to the US, India, Spain, and Israel. The story starts with a dramatic incident and from that moment, it picks up on the emotional depth, exploring the subtle complexities of the characters and plunging them into situations that compel them to make important decisions. The narrative follows a small family rooted in a foreign land and how it expands, with drama and challenges building up in each decade of its growth. The author makes the writing realistic and I enjoyed how the elements of different languages and cultures are woven into the tale, like verbal expressions that reflect the setting of the story. The characters are well-developed and fleshed out. The conflict is explored at different levels and focuses more on interpersonal relationships. How to Make a Life: A Novel is a good read with memorable characters.