Hershman set her acclaimed first novel, Tales of the Master Race, in a village in Nazi Germany, where ordinary Aryans passed unremarkable days while Hitler wrought evil in their midst. Her second novel also deals with survival and its price, but the spared ones here are closer to her heart. Like Hershman's own Jewish grandparents, America's Evan and Vera Eichenbaum leave Czechoslovakia before the Holocaust, but they can't escape it.
It is present-day Cleveland, where the Eichenbaums emigrated and have prospered, then the book flashes back to a chilling account of the 1967 heart attack that takes Evan's life. "It's like back then," Vera tells her daughter Joy, remembering how she and Evan failed to save their relatives from the Nazi scourge, how their son Hankus died at the front, how they then arranged for their younger boy to avoid service only to see him crippled by shame.
In graceful prose, Hershman conveys the enormity of this family's losses, as well as the impossibility of the American promise they cling to: "For Joy's generation, life was supposed to be different. They...were supposed to be secure." Fifty years after the war, as Joy's son lies dying of AIDS, she understands that "back then" never ends.
Hershman, who recently lost a brother to AIDS, is unerring in her depiction of grief. Yet America is about transcendence as much as tragedy. "When one of the characters in a tale dies," Hershman writes, "a second, a third and a fourth remain to pick up the narrative." She has done her part. (HarperCollins, $24)