A Life Well Lived: The Boston Girl (review)

The Boston Girl
Anita Diamant
Scribner
release date: December 9

The Boston GirlIn Anita Diamant’s latest novel, eighty-five-year-old Addie Baum tells her granddaughters the story of her life as a girl growing up in Boston in the early twentieth century. Arriving with her family from a small village in Russia, Boston might offer refuge from pogroms, but not from poverty. Her family of four lived in one room—Papa works as a leather cutter, Mameh takes in laundry, and together they scratch out enough of a living to pay for rent and food. Barely. But Addie was a firecracker of a girl, determined to speak English well, attend school, and, like so many immigrants before and after her, follow the American Dream. And it was the neighborhood settlement house that opened Addie to that wider world.

Addie first had to sneak out of the apartment to attend Saturday Club where girls from Italy and Ireland and Russia both share her immigrant story and become fast friends. She spends part of each summer at Rockport Lodge, a hybrid of summer camp and boarding house, where she hiked and picked blueberries and went to town dances—the fresh ocean air of the countryside in stark contrast to the crowded urban (dare-I-say) slum in which she lived for the rest of the year. But it was enough to give her dreams of Something More.

And so Addie quickly became an American Girl, her customs and values clashing with her parents’ narrower view of the world. While she moved quickly towards that Something More, life as a first generation immigrant was not all sweetness and light—this new world also brought  family conflict, illness, and death.

The bookended chapters in which Addie speaks to her granddaughters seem almost unnecessary—I think Addie’s story was powerful enough to carry the novel on its own. For some reason, this was not a quick read for me; it certainly was not as engaging as Diamant’s The Red Tent from over a decade ago. But I felt as if the pace of the plot (which covers over seventy years of Addie’s life) mirrored the pace of a life well-lived. And while I sometimes grow weary if a novel moves too slowly, I didn’t in this case. Because it was Addie herself, this firecracker of a girl, that compelled me to read on.

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