A mesmerizing, heartbreaking graphic novel of immigrant life on New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century, as seen through the eyes of twin sisters whose lives take radically and tragically different paths.
For six-year-old Esther and Fanya, the teeming streets of New York’s Lower East Side circa 1910 are both a fascinating playground and a place where life’s lessons are learned quickly and often cruelly. In drawings that capture both the tumult and the telling details of that street life, Unterzakhn (Yiddish for “Underthings”) tells the story of these sisters: as wide-eyed little girls absorbing the sights and sounds of a neighborhood of struggling immigrants; as teenagers taking their own tentative steps into the wider world (Esther working for a woman who runs both a burlesque theater and a whorehouse, Fanya for an obstetrician who also performs illegal abortions); and, finally, as adults battling for their own piece of the “golden land,” where the difference between just barely surviving and triumphantly succeeding involves, for each of them, painful decisions that will have unavoidably tragic repercussions.
Set in New York City's Lower East Side in the early 20th century, this book follows the lives of two sisters, Fanya and Esther. The children of Russian Jewish immigrants, the girls take wildly divergent paths. Fanya goes to work for Bronia, a female doctor who quietly tries to dispense family planning material to her patients struggling to support the children they already have; Esther becomes a showgirl, after a stop in a brothel. Sex, then, is at the heart of both of their worlds, and Corman gracefully traces both young women's efforts to maintain control of their bodies in an unpredictable and at times violent world. Corman steeps her striking black and white artwork with period details, particularly in the clothes and the bustling street scenes. In a flashback scene set in Russia, especially, she echoes the swirling evocative style of Russian folk art. The sisters and their father are compelling, although some characters remain enigmas; a plot twist about the mother is hard to reconcile with the way the character is first introduced. Overall, though, the story of Fanya and Esther's struggles is beautifully drawn and hard to forget.