Ysenda Maxtone Graham

One club, no hearts

In a highly distinctive memoir, Betsy Lerner affectionately skewers her mother’s bridge-playing friends — with their impeccable reserve and luncheons of silvery fish

Not a single line of this highly distinctive memoir happens out of doors. All of it takes place in rooms: the dining-rooms and living-rooms, mainly, of five elderly, thin, Jewish bridge-playing ladies, Bette, Bea, Jackie, Rhoda and Roz, in a desirable suburb of New Haven, Connecticut. Their napkin rings are made of silver, porcelain, tortoiseshell, bamboo and Bakelite, and they put on their best necklaces and get out the best coffee cups when it’s their turn to host. They have met together to play bridge every Monday afternoon for over half a century. ‘Five ladies, luncheon of silvery fish, two decks of cards and a scoring pad nearby.’ (It’s five in the club, by the way, so there’s an extra if one of them is ill.)

The author Betsy Lerner, a New York literary agent in her fifties, is the daughter of Roz. Betsy has moved back to New Haven for her husband’s work purposes and lives too near her mother for comfort. She takes every comment her mother makes (such as that she ought to put paper hand-towels for guests in the bathroom) as a criticism of her whole existence. Therapy is needed, and she has it with a non-speaking therapist, who helps.

But she also clearly needs to write this memoir to sort things out. Having taken for granted those bridge afternoons as the wallpaper of her childhood, she has become fascinated by the ladies’ astonishingly regular, unruffled habits, including her mother’s. What have their long married lives really been like? Did they mind not having paid jobs? How come they never, ever hug each other? With her gentle probing of each of the ladies in turn, and her acute eye for telling detail, she draws us into the same fascination.

You don’t have to be a bridge-player to find this book enjoyable.

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