Strangers and Cousins
In Leah Hager Cohen’s elegantly abbreviated family saga, Strangers and Cousins, we meet the Blumenthals as they are busy preparing their homestead and hearts for a momentous event that is to take place at their home in Rundle Junction, New York. Clem, the eldest Blumenthal child, “is planning, at the ridiculously tender age of twenty-two (never mind that Bennie was a bride at that very age), to wed her college girlfriend in four days’ time.” Amid the hubbub, she and patriarch Walter are sitting on two very big—and consequential—secrets.
Walter is bringing Bennie’s Great Aunt Glad to stay for the weekend. Glad Erland had lived in the Blumenthal home as a child, and the shiny pink scars on her face date back nearly nine decades to a horrific tragedy that struck Rundle Junction during the Spirit of Progress Grand Community Pageant. What none of the Erland-Blumenthal clan knows is that Glad has carried a tragic secret of her own since that storied disaster.
But Strangers and Cousins is framed by not one but “two pageants, eighty-seven years apart. The first scripted to fortify the myths upon which the institution of this nation was built. The second scripted to dispel the myths upon which the institution of marriage was built.” For unbeknownst to her family, theater-major Clem has planned a wedding that is as much performance art as ceremony—and has even made it her senior thesis. Like Cohen’s novel, the wedding will superimpose ultra-modern sensibilities over eons of stasis and tradition, encroached upon by both human and metaphorical intruders at the gate.
Strangers and Cousins takes place over only four days, while simultaneously spanning epochs. As crammed full as it is of family history, it nevertheless glimpses far into the Blumenthals’ future, with flights of omniscience and various existential meanderings. Cohen’s characters are familiar in their failings and lovable in their tender quirks. Her writing style and tone lend a lightweight grace to at-times heavy subject matter—a levity not flippant or callow but held aloft by a sense of time’s two-dimensional circularity and history’s Faulknerian indefatigability. Cohen’s gentle philosophizing reminds us that while the past may not even be past, and the future often feels dangerously obscure, the present—bountifully populated by both strangers and cousins—offers its own rewards, if we choose to embrace them.