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The Markoff Women : by June Flaum Singer (Evans: $14.95; 368 pp.)

March 09, 1986|Meredith Babeaux Brucker | Brucker is a novelist and writing teacher in San Marino

This beautifully written but oddly constructed novel at first appears to be what is called in the book trade a three-generational saga. But then it abandons that proven form, with mixed results.

The first third of the book describes in warm and interesting detail the first year in the marriage of a brilliant Lithuanian peasant girl, Eve Markoff, as she takes up residence in the sprawling home of her tyrannical father-in-law. There she makes a kitchen shared by five women seem a constant party as she gives reading lessons, treats illnesses, sews beautiful dresses for anyone who asks, and makes everyone fall in love with her, including the reader.

This tiny readhead engineers a power struggle to oust her father-in-law from his reign of terror over the family and achieves not only fair pay for the men but also higher status (a place at the dinner table) for the women of the household, and this at a time when women--old world Jewish women in particular--were considered mere chattal.

Then her quest for freedom takes her beyond the Markoff kitchen, and she begins to dream of escape to America. But as the author ticks off the years . . . 1892, 1893 . . . Eve is so convinced that her beloved husband David is "a man of destiny" that she won't let him walk away from what she describes as "this deathwatch we're keeping over Russia."

Ultimately, it is her son who makes the trip instead, and at this point, the book veers off to follow his fortunes. Yitzhak (later "Jamie") is, unfortunately, a character his own father must describe as "a good-natured oaf." Upon arrival in the new land, he casually shaves off his beard and with it his family heritage, and for years never drops a line to his family.

Any hope of a third redeeming generation--a new Eve--in his daughter Ava never materializes. Instead the issue of assimilation is analyzed in the rushed final pages of the book as members of the scattered family are accounted for in a long letter that comes from Israel.

June Flaum Singer has previously written two best-selling Hollywood stories: "The Movie Set" and "Star Dreams." Here she is more ambitious and lovingly draws on her own family history to create a character no reader should miss, and yet one so winning that the latter portion of the book suffers from her absence on those pages.

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