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“You can never go home again,” or so the saying goes. Jill Eisenstadt puts that cliché to the test in her third book, SWELL, which sees the Queens-bred novelist returning to the quirky characters and outer borough setting that first made her famous in the late 1980s.

It’s been more than a quarter-century since former literary Brat Packer Jill Eisenstadt’s last novel, and three decades since she introduced readers to the blue-collar seaside community of Rockaway, a neighborhood so far removed from the glittering skyscrapers of Manhattan that it might as well be another planet. The setting may be the same this time around, and some of the characters familiar, but the world is a far different place.

Most of SWELL takes place over a couple of days in June 2002. The wounds of September 11th are still raw, especially in Rockaway, the home (or former home) of many of the firefighters who rushed to the towers that day. Then there’s the “charred Belle Harbor block,” where another plane crashed just two months later, killing everyone aboard.

"Eisenstadt has a definite knack for capturing amusing scenes of domestic disorder, even when the situations she envisions lean toward the implausible."

Ghosts, in other words, are everywhere here, including in the Glassman family’s new house, a moldering pile that until recently was inhabited by Rose Imperioli, a stubborn nonagenarian with a big secret. As we learn in a prologue, Rose shot her only son, Gary, back in 1993, the same night that the Golden Venture, a freighter smuggling hundreds of Chinese immigrants, ran aground on a nearby beach (more neighborhood tragedy). One of the fleeing immigrants was blamed for the murder, but Tim Ray, her neighbor, last seen as a teenager in FROM ROCKAWAY, happened upon the scene and knows the truth.

A decade later, Rose has been booted out of her house by her daughter-in-law, and Sue and Dan Glassman, along with their two children, June and Sage, have moved in. The family is fleeing their Tribeca apartment, contaminated with World Trade Center dust. But the new digs come with a catch. Dan’s father, Sy, bankrolled the purchase, and he’s moving in as well. Plus, Sue has finally agreed to convert to Judaism, having “sold her soul for a sea view and a few extra bathrooms.”

Now, it’s the weekend of Sue’s long-awaited conversion, and to say things are chaotic would be an understatement. Wheelchair-bound Rose has shown up on the doorstep, reasserting her claim to the property. Dan’s migraines are getting worse. The heavily pregnant Sue is having second thoughts about switching faiths. Four-year-old Sage is obsessed with her imaginary best friend Ed, while teenage June has a crush on Tim, now an ex-firefighter and recovering alcoholic turned driver’s ed instructor.

Eisenstadt has a definite knack for capturing amusing scenes of domestic disorder, even when the situations she envisions lean toward the implausible. It’s hard to imagine any family, even one as off-kilter as the Glassmans, moving into a home still filled to the brim with the previous owner’s possessions and making no effort to even clean out the kitchen cabinets, but that’s exactly what happens in SWELL. And then there’s 16-year-old June, who is “parenting” a single egg as part of a health class assignment. It’s a rather heavy-handed way to make the point that sometimes children are more grown up than the actual adults around them.

But of course there’s humor in the absurd, and Eisenstadt’s on-the-nose dialogue allows her to milk the strange situations into which she’s thrown her characters for all they’re worth. We can laugh as Sue struggles to explain the situation with Rose to the older woman’s daughter-in-law, who’s at a “conference in Provence,” a phrase Sue finds endlessly amusing. But at the heart of this story is a group of people struggling to make sense of a universe thrown off balance by tragedies both large and small. (Dan, trying to come to terms with the death of his mother, sees his grief as “a private, faintly unseemly thing in a neighborhood reeling from far bigger tragedy.”) The unpredictability of life in the so-called “Murder House” mirrors the randomness of the larger world. “But how many dangers come to light either too late or after the threat’s passed?” Tim wonders. “To imagine what unknown horrors they right now face --- man-made and natural, from within, from without.”

Family, both natural and invented, seems to be the only bulwark, albeit a sometimes faulty one, against impending disaster. The Glassmans’ home might be falling down around them, but somehow, we know they’ll find a way to make it work. 

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on July 7, 2017

by Jill Eisenstadt

  • Publication Date: June 5, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316316881
  • ISBN-13: 9780316316880