Fanya and Esther Feinberg are twin girls growing up in the lower east side Jewish ghetto of New York City at the beginning of the 20th century. It is not a safe or clean place, and has limited opportunities for girls. Their home life is not very loving, either. While their father is caring and kind, he is also meek. He’s not around a lot, as he works hard as the owner of a corset and foundation wear store in order to support his three girls (Fanya and Esther have a little sister, Feigl). Their mother helps in the store and seems to have a “special” relationship with some of the customers. The girls are sheltered and not completely aware of the difficulties that face them.
As they grow up, Esther, who likes the fancy things in life, ends up working in a brothel. First just helping out as a cleaning girl, the madam puts her to work as a regular prostitute after a customer rapes her. Fanya ends up apprenticing to a local midwife, first just to learn to read and maybe gain a skill, but later helping provide illegal abortifacients and birth control advice. Neither girl truly chooses her own path and neither ends up quite where you think she will.
There is a slightly jarring interlude in the middle of the story as it flashes back to show their father’s tale of how he ends up marrying their mother and coming to America. While it is interesting to understand the quiet figure of the father better, his story is just plunked down in the middle of the story and doesn’t quite fit.
The art is very stark and sketchy. Drawn in pen and ink, the art seems hasty, which only works part of the time. Sometimes this gives a feeling of immediacy or urgency to the story, but sometimes it just devolves into sloppiness. Fanya’s hair, in particular, often looks tossed onto her head, when I think the artist was actually going for Fanya’s hair expressing her rebelliousness.
While the novel touches on many issues of class and sex and opportunity and religion, these issues are presented without a lot of forced lecturing. Corman shows what life was like, putting you into the story, rather than telling you about life and so leaving you above it all. It is left to the reader to delve into these issues or to just read the surface story.