Before he slept with the fishes, Luca Brasi delivered his most famous line to Don Corleone on the wedding day of the Don’s daughter. If you’ve ever seen The Godfather, it’s a line you probably remember: And may their first child be a masculine child. I have always been irritated by the sentiment.
For at least 16 years, I have carried the notion of The Two Family House with me. Long before that, I carried only the questions that would eventually lead me to my narrative. Why did my grandmother, the mother of three daughters, repeatedly tell me how much she had longed for a son? Why, in the earlier generations of so many cultures, from Jewish to Italian to Chinese, were boys valued more highly than girls? Was a mother’s love for a daughter truly different from the love she felt for a son?
In the summer of 1999, when my first child was six months old, I read an article by Lisa Belkin in the New York Times Magazine called Getting The Girl. “We care about the sex of our children,” Belkin wrote. “Some of us care more than others, but we all care. It is the first question asked about a baby, almost from conception, certainly at the moment of birth. Any preference has always been but a wish, a dream, sometimes a throbbing unspoken regret.” The article examined Microsort, a company that allowed clients to choose the sex of their infant through a complicated sperm separation process. According to the company, more parents were requesting girls than boys. The tide, it seemed, had turned.
Belkin’s article resonated with me. Before becoming pregnant, I had struck a deal with my husband – he wanted two children, and I concurred. “But if the first two are boys,” I insisted, “we’ll try once more for a girl.” My terms were non-negotiable, and I was lucky enough to get what I wanted: I am the mother of one girl and one boy. But why was I so adamant? Where did my need for a daughter come from, and how far would I have gone to fulfill it?
In the sleep-deprived haze that followed the birth of my daughter, the story of The Two-Family House truly took root. Inspiration came from a collection of near mythic stories I had heard throughout my childhood. Like the families in my novel, my mother and her two younger sisters grew up in a two-family house in Brooklyn. They lived on the top floor, while my grandmother’s brother, his wife and their three daughters lived on the bottom. The girls were raised together, almost as siblings. My grandmother, Tillie, and her sister-in-law, Diane, were always close – in part, because they were so different. Tillie was a traditional wife and homemaker, while Diane, by all accounts, was a woman ahead of her time; she was the first of her contemporaries to learn to drive, and she never cooked. My grandmother loved telling stories of how her three nieces would come upstairs when they were hungry. “They’d bring two slices of bread,” she used to tell me, “and ask for something to put in the middle.”
In the two-family house of my mother’s childhood, there were no sons to be found, no reason for the kind of envy that Mort felt in the book to develop. But as a young girl with a grandmother who made no apologies for her preference for grandsons, I often wondered – what if there had been?
In my mind, a new family emerged. Abe would have four boys and his brother, Mort, would have three girls. Their wives, Helen and Rose, would be close in the way my own grandmother and her sister-in-law always were, and the children, all seven of them, would be raised together. With a family of boys, Helen would yearn for a daughter, while Rose, meek and miserable, would crumble under the constant pressure she felt to produce a son for her husband. Aside from their environment, the characters bore no significant resemblance to the members of my family. But for me, they became real.
The house itself – where both families lived on separate floors, yet had unlimited access to each other and minimal privacy – was vital to the story. Living in tight quarters created a bond between Helen and Rose that couldn’t have been formed otherwise, but it also inflamed Mort’s feelings of anger and resentment toward the brood of rambunctious boys upstairs.
Without question, the house was a necessary percolator for the narrative. But once the scene was set, I no longer felt the need to dwell on the outward details. At that point, I was free to focus inward on my characters, their temperaments, their beliefs and their motivations. My need to expose the full spectrum of each character’s emotions propelled certain aspects of the plot. How could I ignore the opportunity to explore Rose’s post-partum depression or Helen’s anxiety over filling out a hospital form? What would happen if the families ever moved? My objective always was to reveal, in small, domestic moments, the cumulative layers of tragedy that could result from a single misguided choice made by ordinary individuals.
Although none of the main characters in the novel were modeled on my relatives, personal tidbits and fragments of family legend slipped in here and there. I really do have my mother’s recipe box that I talk to from time to time. And the inspiration for the restaurant scene in the first part of the book came from stories my mother and aunts used to tell about their family dinners at a restaurant in Little Italy.
Of all the anecdotes in the story, I included only one from my own personal experience. Every Saturday afternoon when my mother got her hair done, my grandmother really did come to my house with bologna, rolls and a miniature chocolate cake with a cherry on top for my brother and me. Every Saturday afternoon, she would tell my brother that she had brought the cake especially for him. Ask any of my relatives and they’ll tell you. My brother got the cherry, every time.