Review: The Bridge Ladies: A Memoir

New bridge of a troubled daughter


By Betsy Lerner
Macmillan, £18.99

I may, as a baby-boomer, bridge-daughter and mother of girls, be the ideal reader for this book. But don't be put off if you have never in your life been near a bridge table. This charmingly quirky and heartfelt tale is about much more than a pack of cards and, as a group portrait, goes beyond the scope of a simple memoir, too.

The Bridge Ladies is a funny, tender, sometimes sad account of a mother--daughter relationship that is often painful but always honest as Betsy recounts the conflicts she has had with her mother over the years about clothes, diet, hair and boyfriends.

It's also a valuable piece of social history capturing a group of Jewish women, typical of their generation, whose prime focus was not a career but getting a man and keeping him happy.

The book opens with Betsy in her forties, a successful literary agent, married with a daughter herself, having recently moved back to her childhood home of New Haven, Connecticut. The biggest challenge of the move, for Betsy, was being so close to her now eighty-something, widowed mother, Roz. If Betsy bought low-fat cottage cheese her mother would ask her why she had not bought the fat-free variety. "It was cottage cheese for God's sake. Translated through the mother-daughter lexicon: was I ever going to be good enough?"

Betsy decides to use the opportunity of moving home to learn about the five women who, including Roz, have for the last 50 years played bridge together on Monday afternoons, as well as learning to play bridge herself.

In the course of the story, as Betsy undertakes to interview the women about intimate details of their lives, she discovers courageous women, who never spent hours in therapy sessions but just got on with their often difficult, post-war lives, doing the best they could to raise their children, keeping their problems and emotions to themselves.

One of the most poignant episodes recounts the death, aged two, of Betsy's sister, Barbara. Roz never wanted to discuss it but, once a year, for Barbara's yahrzeit, went secretly to synagogue. In addition, Roz, who wrote privately but never sought a career as a writer, admits she kept her desire to write to herself through a mixture of insecurity and fear. "I never wanted to expose myself."

Using bridge as a metaphor for how to live one's life is an original idea that works on a number of levels. The bridge that yokes mother and daughter together is almost as significant as the bridge game they play with all its possibilities for trumping and finessing.

But where I, as a bridge daughter, disappointed - I never could devote enough time or effort to grappling with this game - Betsy succeeds triumphantly.

By the end of the book, bridge has become the highlight of Betsy's week, she and her mother have clearly learned how to negotiate not only the game but the crossing of a bridge to meet each other half way.

Anne Sebba's latest book, 'Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s' will be published in July by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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