Blooming All Over by Judith Arnold
(Mira, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-7783-2059-6
****
Imagine yourself on a guided tour of New York and New England. You’ve signed up to spend two weeks with nine or ten strangers, some of whom you like right off the bat, others who grow on you, and a few you just never learn to care for. Reading Judith Arnold’s Blooming All Over is a similar experience.

Bloom’s Deli is a New York City institution, a mega-delicatessen that also sells gourmet cookware and utensils. (Think Williams-Sonoma mated with a kosher-style Whole Foods.) Most of the Bloom family, headed up by matriarch Ida Bloom (89 years old and cranky) work there, although there is some resistance from the cousins who make up the youngest generation.

Julia, Suzy, and Adam’s father was president of Bloom’s until he died two years ago, and their mother is still an executive at Bloom’s…working for her daughter, Julia. When her son died, Ida Bloom passed over her children’s generation and picked Julia, her focused, determined granddaughter, to succeed her father. Julia left her position with a major law firm to organize and update Bloom’s. One of the changes of which she is particularly proud is the expansion of Bloom’s catering service.

Now Julia is about to marry Ron Joffe, the sexiest guy in the world, and she wants the reception to be catered by Bloom’s. Her mother, Sondra, is even more determined to have the reception at the Plaza Hotel, scene of Julia’s cousin Travis’ bar mitzvah. The Plaza would be all right with Julia if the hotel would let Bloom’s do the catering, but they will not. So Julia is scouting sites for the wedding while running a large, complex business, keeping her romance on track – not too difficult, Ron is sensible as well as sexy – and worrying about everybody in the family. I liked Julia right away.

I liked Julia’s younger brother, Adam, too. Adam is between degrees. He has just gotten his B.A. in mathematics and is at loose ends until September, when he leaves for Purdue University to work on his Ph.D. He finds himself stuck in his mother’s apartment in Manhattan, with a girlfriend off hugging trees in Seattle and no plans of his own except to avoid working at Bloom’s. I enjoyed Adam’s encounters with a ballet student, but his gradual involvement in the family business was even more fun.

Suzy was a different story. She had to grow on me. At first, she struck me as immature and slightly flaky. I had a hard time taking her problem seriously: her boyfriend, Bloom’s bagelmeister, wants her to move in with him, maybe even get married. Her principal objection to this escalation of their relationship seemed to be that Casey lived in Queens. Since Suzy shared a one-bedroom walk-up in Manhattan with two roommates, moving to Queens didn’t seem that awful a fate.

Breaking up with Casey left Suzy susceptible to her cousin Rick’s plans to make a movie about Bloom’s. Rick is a self-centered would-be auteur who has persuaded Julia to front him $25,000 to make a Bloom’s infomercial. He enlists Suzy as the star of this project because 1.) he likes Suzy, in a strictly cousinly way, and 2.) she is an accomplished writer. Rick needs a script.

Because breaking up with Casey has made Suzy miserable, she agrees to go on a road trip with Rick, and they head for Maine. Why Maine? Rick has no real idea, except that he doesn’t want to make his film in New York…he doesn’t think of it as an infomercial. While he and Suzy rattle around New England, at home Julia worries about what is happening to a large chunk of her advertising budget. My sympathies were with Julia.

Besides the four cousins, Blooming All Over had a panoply of characters from the older generations: grandmother Ida, Julia’s Plaza-obsessed mother Sondra, Rick’s divorced parents, Casey’s parents, Ron’s father, and finally, and perhaps most effectively, New York City itself:

(Adam) wondered if West Lafayette (Indiana) had seedy (sidewalk) vendors selling…used and remaindered books, cheesy paintings in cheap frames, knock-off watches, sun visors, New Age knickknacks and brass paperweights shaped like the World Trade Center towers, with the words God Bless America etched across their red-white-and-blue bases – were all these folks licensed to sell such crap? Did anyone care?
Of course not. This was New York.

Vignettes like this of New York City life show Ms. Arnold’s writing at its best. At other times her metaphors went beyond clever all the way to annoyingly cute, as when she described a hassle as scrambling Julia’s brain and serving it “on a platter with a side of hash browns.” Ugh. Again, with a cast of characters so extensive, some – like Adam’s tree-hugging girl friend – slipped over the edge and became cartoon-y clichés. Overall, though, Blooming All Over’s sheer breadth worked for it, with more successes than failures.

Perhaps Julia’s struggles to become more assertive in her personal life is what will draw you in, or maybe you’ll enjoy watching Suzy do some much needed growing up, or maybe it will be Ms. Arnold’s description of life on Bloom’s executive floor that does the trick for you. Whatever works for you, I think that if you give the Blooms a chance, when you’ve finished the book, you’ll have met some charming people and…oy, vey is mir…I forgot to mention…picked up a little Yiddish.

--Nancy J. Silberstein


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