Brooklyn Boro

In search of lost art

Brooklyn BookBeat

March 15, 2017 By Ellyn Gaydos Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Ellen Umansky. Photo by Sam Zalutsky
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In Ellen Umansky’s transporting novel, “The Fortunate Ones,” about fate, guilt and the ability of our memories to sustain us, one very special work of art — a Chaim Soutine painting — will connect the lives of two very different women separated by generations but struggling with similar demons.  

Based on historical fact — Chaim Soutine was a Jewish artist who died in France during World War II while in hiding from the Nazis — and featuring a dual-narrative that moves between Vienna in World War II to contemporary Los Angeles, “The Fortunate Ones,” published by William Murrow (an imprint of Harper Collins), unfolds in crystalline, atmospheric prose, revealing a haunting story of longing, devastation and forgiveness and a deep examination of the bonds and memories that map our private histories.   

It is 1939 in Vienna and Rose Zimmer’s parents are desperate. Unable to get out of Austria, they manage to secure passage for their young daughter on a Kindertransport, a rescue effort that was organized right before the war broke out, and send her to live with strangers in England. Six years later, the war finally over, with the hope of having one thing to connect a grief-stricken Rose to her lost parents, she unsuccessfully attempts to track down a Chaim Soutine painting that her mother had cherished. Many years later, the painting finds its way to America. In modern-day Los Angeles, Lizzie Goldstein has returned home for her father’s funeral. Newly single and unsure of her path, she also carries a burden of guilt that cannot be displaced. Years ago, as a teenager, Lizzie threw a party at her father’s house and his Soutine painting, which provided lasting comfort to her after her own mother had died, was stolen, never to be recovered. This painting, which now carries so much emotional turmoil and meaning, will bring Lizzie and Rose together and ignite an unexpected friendship, eventually revealing a path to acceptance… and maybe good fortune.

In the pages of “The Fortunate Ones,” Ellen is able to breathe new emotion into her smartly crafted take on historical fiction. Hanya Yanagihara, author of the celebrated “A Little Life,” writes that Umansky’s novel “asks the big questions … how does history write itself on our lives and our society?”

Though her story jumps from Vienna to London to modern-day Los Angeles, Umansky lives with her husband and two daughters in Brooklyn, where she continues to author fiction and work as a journalist for publications such as The New Yorker, The Forward and Tablet.


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