Two sisters leave 1940s Ohio for Hollywood in this entertaining subversion of family life and the nature of good luck.
The 100th anniversary of the start of the first world war comes complete with archaic images of soldiers in helmets and puttees, but the second world war, which began only 25 years later, seems as though it started the day before yesterday. The reason for this is Hollywood – by 1942, movie screens were full of dramatic and eternally present images of bombers flying, soldiers marching, generals deciding, landscapes being destroyed.
In her new novel, Lucky Us, which begins in 1939 and ends in 1949, Amy Bloom is aware of both the cause and the effect. One of her main characters, Iris, is a teenage girl who models herself on Claudette Colbert; she wins money entering contests in – "elocution, rhetoric, dramatic readings, poetry readings, patriotic essays and dance". After she graduates from high school, she gets herself and Eva, the narrator – four years younger, bookish and agreeable – from Ohio to Hollywood. There they find a world that was never portrayed on screen, and Bloom commences her strangely entertaining and disturbing subversion of what we thought we knew about Hollywood, the second world war, family life and the nature of good luck.
In Lucky Us, nearly every character practises deceit because it is essential for survival. No one can go out in the world, for example, without perfect clothes and excellent makeup. For this, Eva and Iris rely upon Francisco, whom they meet when Iris gets some studio work and a few speaking parts. Francisco is making a decent living in the makeup department at MGM. But when Francisco meets Edgar, Eva and Iris's father (a professor-poet, married but gay), he decides to accompany the family across country, to east Brooklyn, where his sisters run a beauty salon, and Great Neck, where Edgar hires himself out as a trained butler. Deceit can work for or against any character. The only character who is who he says he is – Gus, a German American with an auto repair business – gets sent to a work camp in North Dakota and then deported back to Germany just in time for the firebombings of early 1945.
Bloom's plot twists are always surprising, and so I dare not reveal them. They are accompanied by something of a soundtrack – the chapters are entitled not only "You Made Me Love You", but also "Dirty Butter" and "Hitler Has Only Got One Ball". The effect is to give Eva's and Iris's sometimes horrifying experiences a pop subtext that has the rhythm and sound of hope. Added to this is the ironic wit of Eva's voice – though she always presses on, she never fails to notice the impossibility of pressing on. As she remarks at one point: "My father's illness became a long, bumpy, terrible road to a place we didn't want to go, except that the road itself was so awful, we couldn't wait to get there."
One of Bloom's subjects is the willingness – on the part of both characters and author – to go anywhere. Her 2007 novel, Away, explored the odyssey of Lilian Leyb, a 23-year-old survivor of a Russian pogrom, who decides to return to Siberia in search of her daughter. Bloom is also the author of Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops and Hermaphrodites with Attitude, as well as four volumes of short stories. She practiced for 20 years as a psychotherapist, and in 2007 produced and wrote a US TV series about "the private and professional lives of therapists". Eva is her principal narrator, but other characters have their say, sometimes in the form of letters. If a character has a few secrets, Bloom doesn't mind exposing them to the reader – though not to the other characters. The result is a lively montage of new perspectives on a period we thought we understood.
Lucky Us does not suggest that anyone is crazy, only that people have their reasons, and that others might, or could, or should, put up with those reasons. People can be cruel – in Ohio, Hollywood, Germany, in the kitchen and the backyard – but they can also make the best of a bad deal, and learn things they might have not learned otherwise. That includes the reader.
Jane Smiley's new novel, Some Luck, will be published in November. To order Lucky Us for £9.99 (RRP £12.99) go to guardian.co.uk or call 0330 333 6846.