I may, as a baby-boomer, bridge-daughter and mother of girls, be the ideal reader for this book. But those of you who have never been near a bridge table all your lives don’t be put off. This 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 which 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 and author, married and with a daughter herself, now living once again in her childhood home, New Haven, Connecticut, where she had moved back from New York City a decade previously because of her husband’s job. The biggest challenge of the move, for Betsy, was having her eighty something widowed mother Roz now becoming a regular part of their lives. Betsy and Roz had ‘always circled each other like wary boxers’. 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 (four players plus one dummy) who, including Roz, have for the last fifty years played bridge together on Monday afternoons, (rotating the host home), as well as learning to play bridge herself. It was a project which stupefied one of her sisters knowing how Betsy once considered these ladies ‘not worth knowing’. But in the course of the story, as Betsy undertakes to interview the women about intimate details of their lives such as how they chose their husbands, whether or not they were in love, how they dealt with infertility and rebellious teenagers who might have birth control pills in their handbags, she discovers courageous women, who never spent hours in therapy sessions complaining about their parents, but just got on with their often difficult, post-war lives and did the best they could to raise their children. They kept their problems and their emotions to themselves, unlike the indulged generation to which Betsy and I belong, where a willingness to discuss personal details about our lives is not only normal but encouraged. One of the most poignant episodes in the book recounts the death, aged two, of Betsy’s sister Barbara and how her mother never wanted to talk about it. At the time of the death Betsy was four, her older sister Nina, six; within hours every picture of Barbara was swept away, her clothes folded and given away. Neither parent discussed what had happened but, once a year, for Barbara’s jahrzeit Roz went secretly to synagogue.
In addition Roz, who wrote privately but never sought a career as a writer, finally opens up to her daughter that she never felt she was smart enough. She kept her desire to write to herself through a mixture of insecurity and fear. “I never wanted to expose myself,” she admits. Nor does Roz ever expose her emotions, not even to give her daughter a hug. Why? ‘It’s not appropriate,’ is all she says. How fortunate women are today, is surely one message of this book, that we can (mostly) pursue the careers for which we have been educated.
There have been books which tap sport or even embroidery as a metaphor for how to live one’s life but using bridge is an original idea which works at a number of levels. The bridge that yokes mother and daughter together is almost as significant as the bridge game they have to 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, not only in bridging the gap between her own and her mother’s ideas on how to live life, but in playing the game. By the end of the book, bridge has become the highlight of Betsy’s week, she and her mother play occasionally as partners and have clearly learned how to negotiate not only the game but crossing a bridge to meet each other half way. ‘I never really appreciated my mother,’ says Betsy. ‘I never appreciated myself.’ How sad that apparently bridge, once a mainstream activity, is fast waning in popularity and now claims only 300,000 players in Britain, a statistic which apparently ‘puts the game on a par with stamp collecting and fly fishing.’ Perhaps this charmingly quirky and heartfelt book might do something to stem the tide.
Anne Sebba’s latest book, Les Parisiennes How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s is published in July by Weidenfeld & Nicolson