Judy Budnitz's debut novel, If I Told You Once, introduces us to Ilana, a peasant girl living sometime at the beginning of the 20th century, in an unnamed European town so gray that 'the color of an egg yolk is something of a miracle.' This is a place as timeless and vivid as fairy tales, with figures from Russian folklore cast against real-world horrors like rape, cannibalism, and genocide.
Not to say that all is gloomy in Budnitz's world. That's certainly not the case for Ilana, who is inspired to escape her environs for America, the only place with an actual name in the whole book. Here, Ilana's voyage turns into an immigrant's story of poverty, love, and loss. Budnitz also abandons much of the magical realism that fuels her tale's first 100 pages. What replaces the nonstop parade of wonders is a narrative device--suddenly the story is told from the point of view of Ilana's daughter, Sashie; then by Sashie's daughter, Mara; and finally by Nomie, Mara's niece.
As each woman speaks her mind on the American experience and the wounds of the heart, what emerges is a multi-generational saga that not only traverses time and geography, but sensibility as well. The novel is so well paced that the four narrators manage to keep up with the times without having to lean too heavily on cultural benchmarks like world events, slang, and references to pop songs. Budnitz's method is much more integrated, gently conveying a sense of time and tradition slipping away.
Even as Sashie and Mara dismiss the magical stories of Ilana's youth as fabrications, these tales resonate through a novel of great mythic weight. Here, nothing less than the modern world is ushered into being through the voices of girls who become lovers, lovers who become wives, and wives who become mothers. Miracles, indeed. --Ryan Boudinot