On the day they first meet in a city playground, Deborah Laidlaw lends Toby Ruben a book called Trolley Girl, the memoir of a forgotten trolley strike in the 1920s, written by the sister of a fiery Jewish revolutionary who played an important, ultimately tragic role in the events. Young mothers with babies, Toby and Deborah become instant friends. It is a relationship that will endure for decades—through the vagaries of marriage, career, and child-rearing, through heated discussions of politics, ethics, and life—until an insurmountable argument takes the two women down divergent paths. But in the aftermath of crisis and sorrow, it is a borrowed book, long set aside and forgotten, that will unite Toby and Deborah once again.
Ten years later, despite their problems, Deborah and Toby are still friends, still raising their families together. They may talk about Trolley Girl, but there seems to be little time for reading; instead, the two women teach classes, take classes, scold children. The novel leaps ahead another 10 years: The women's friendship comes to a tragic end. Just when Toby is at her lowest ebb of despair, who should appear in her (real) life but Jessie, the anarchist sister, who happens to live nearby. Jessie brings Toby an unexpected measure of comfort.
Alice Mattison's novel of friendship and history succeeds on so many levels it's almost dizzying. As a portrait of friendship it is difficult and true. As a diagram of loss it is exacting and rigorous. Yet the author has bigger goals here. Like Margaret Drabble in her later work, Mattison seeks to connect the bloody events of the world to the quiet lives of her characters. And, finally, she comes up with an allegory of reading itself: the character Jessie steps out of the pages of Trolley Girl to provide Toby with the solace she needs. So books daily come to our rescue. --Claire Dederer