Although they live on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, Molly and Michèle have the type of close friendship that picks up right where they left off the last time they saw each other. As film critics turned film producers, the two see each other a few times a year at industry events and talk on the phone all the time. When Michèle gets a phone call that Molly has suffered an aneurism and is now in a deep coma, she’s distraught.
Months pass in which friends and family wait to see the full extent of the damage the aneurism caused. The longer Molly is in a coma, the less likely it is that she’ll have a positive prognosis. She finally does wake, but she’s just not the same.
Told in a series of letters from Michèle to Molly, Mon amie américaine explores the boundaries of friendship. Before the aneurism, Molly was the life of the party. In her work, she had the instincts and confidence to excel. These were things people loved about her. Michèle, though happily settled with her family, saw herself and Molly as equals who made different choices in life: if she had decided not to get married, she’d be living like Molly; if Molly had decided to get married, she’d be living like Michèle. Families aside, they were the same and that’s what made them click.
Maeve Fanning and her mother, a widowed Irish immigrant, live in Boston’s impoverished North End. It’s the 1930s and jobs are scarce. Maeve’s mother works long hours as a seamstress and hopes that she’ll one day be promoted to saleswoman, but she knows that’s unlikely; no one would hire an Irish salesperson. As such, all of her hopes are pinned on Maeve to succeed.
A while back, Maeve left her beau and suddenly moved to New York City to start a new life. She tells her mother she’s working for an eccentric millionaire, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth: she relishes her newfound freedom, develops a taste for the nightlife…and ends up in a psychiatric hospital. She returns to Boston humiliated and determined to keep The Thing that happened in New York a secret.
With the Great Depression worsening, jobs have gotten even more scarce in the North End since Maeve first left. She hears of a job opening at an antiques shop, but she’s in a similar situation as her mother: a high-end shop that caters to Boston’s elite would never hire someone Irish, and Maeve’s name and beautiful red hair are dead giveaways. With a bottle of peroxide, some wardrobe finagling, and considerable pluck, May Fanning now passes herself off as a well-bred woman from Albany. She’s hired, and in the course of her work runs into Diana Van der Laar, a beautiful and troubled socialite who had also been hospitalized in New York. Maeve is terrified about her secret being revealed, but Diana is impishly thrilled. The two settle into a whirlwind friendship, but it’s a high stakes situation for Maeve, who is constantly trying to hide her impoverished Irish roots from her new acquaintances.
Fidelma McBride, a beautiful forty-year-old woman, lives in a small Irish village. Having experienced two miscarriages, she now feels trapped in a stale marriage to her faithful, much older husband. Enter Vlad, a mysterious older gentleman with a commanding presence. His recent move into their sleepy village has brought up a flurry of gossip. Vlad is Eastern European, handsome, educated, and well-traveled. He’s a healer of some sort, specializing in Eastern medicine, and it isn’t long before he starts winning people over…especially the women.
Partly because she desperately wants a baby, and partly out of curiosity, Fidelma approaches the good doctor about helping her get pregnant. Before long, the two are having an affair. But just as quickly as it begins, it is over. Vlad is recognized by someone who escaped his cruelty long ago, and finally the truth comes to light: he isn’t Vlad at all, but a man on the run who is wanted for war crimes in Sarajevo. He is arrested and taken to the Hague, and Fidelma pays a heavy price as well. Broken and shunned, she has no choice but to leave everything in Ireland and flee to the anonymity of London, where she finds herself surrounded by immigrants and refugees, themselves often fleeing horrific pasts.
Given the current political climate — with a huge abortion access case before Supreme Court, a presidential candidate proposing women be punished for having abortions, and people still in a frenzy over last year’s “sting” videos that were doctored to make Planned Parenthood look as bad as possible — the publication of Ellen Feldman’s Terrible Virtue couldn’t be more timely.
The book is a fictional reimagining of Margaret Sanger’s life. Born into poverty, her father an outspoken atheist and her mother an Irish Catholic, Sanger saw firsthand the toll that constant childbearing had on families. Her own mother died at the age of 49, frail and aged beyond her years after eleven successful pregnancies; she also had several miscarriages. In Feldman’s book, Margaret and two of her sisters vow never to marry or have children. They do not want to end up like their mother.
In 1994, Jhumpa Lahiri was a college student in Boston studying Renaissance architecture. She and her sister decided to treat themselves to a trip to Florence, Italy during Christmas break. She writes of the experience:
What I hear, in the shops, in the restaurants, arouses an instantaneous, intense, paradoxical reaction. It’s as if Italian were already inside me and, at the same time, completely external. It doesn’t seem like a foreign language, although I know it is. It seems, strangely, familiar. I recognize something, in spite of the fact that I understand almost nothing.
That feeling never left, and throughout the following years, she tried her best to become fluent in Italian. As anyone who has tried to achieve fluency knows, that’s almost impossible without full immersion — and even then, achieving true fluency in another language gets more difficult as one gets older. So in 2012, Lahiri took a yearlong leave from her teaching duties in the United States and moved to Rome with her family, determined to finally become fluent. She read books in Italian at a painstakingly slow pace, stopping constantly to look words up in the dictionary, and in her journal, she jotted down her thoughts in Italian as well.