“You know lily of the valley is poisonous, right?”
“So don’t eat it. At least not until you’ve finished speaking. Or if the crowd turns on you.”
Set on the eve of the German invasion of Poland, Lilac Girls tells the little-known story of the Rabbits of Ravensbruk–women who were the subject of cruel Nazi medical experiments. Told in alternating chapters from the viewpoints of a Nazi doctor, a Polish teenager involved in the underground, and an American socialite dedicated to helping those less fortunate, Lilac Girls spans twenty years, exploring the long-lasting effects of both cruelty and hope on the human spirit.
Writing Style and Scope
I usually love WWII literature. I studied history in undergrad and took every course I could on WWII and the immediate post-war years in Eastern Europe. I adore All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale. I read Mischling earlier this year and thought it was fantastic. I came to Lilac Girls with high expectations, and that may have been part of the problem.
Overall, Kelly’s writing style completely missed the mark for me. There are witty moments (like the quote above); however, the entire book isn’t quite so snappily written. On the whole, Kelly’s word choice and writing style is pedestrian. There isn’t anything particularly unique or beautiful about the way that Kelly writes.
I do say this with the caveat that Kelly has accomplished something most people haven’t—she’s published an actual book. I have friends who are authors and I have seen the grueling work that goes into writing a book so I do not say this as if just anyone could write a book. It is an accomplishment that Kelly wrote a book like Lilac Girls and it was a worthy effort of her time to tell this particular story. There are many women in my online book club who read and enjoyed it and many people on Goodreads have rated it highly. My enjoyment of a book, however, is very tied to the language and so, for me, Lilac Girls fell flat.
I actually struggled a bit to find the selection I wanted to use as the quote for the book above in keeping with my usual format. There were a few witticisms here and there and there was an extended passage when one of the Rabbits goes to her death that was the only truly beautiful passage that made me pause—but it was far too long to quote.
In scope, Kelly was ambitious—the novel covers something like twenty years in under 500 pages. This passage of time does odd things to the pace and the narrative skips ahead several months at a time consistently. I do not think the book needed to be any longer by any means; however, the passage of time was not always clear (time was marked with years alone) so it was sometimes strange to see how much a character, place, or season had changed since the last chapter. I was constantly flipping back and forth, trying to determine where the character had left off last in time and approximately how much time it seemed had passed since then. Passing time this way made the book read unevenly.
Related to the swift and somewhat uneven passage of time, there were also a handful of asides when Kelly seemed to think she needed to throw in a bit of background note that read oddly, as if the characters were suddenly hitting pause and turning to the reader to explain some bit of history. Because Kelly didn’t have time or space to flesh the events out more evenly or naturally, she has to stop here and there and stage whisper to the reader the background of some event that happened in the intervening time between chapters. If this writing choice were more consistently used throughout the book, it might be one thing, but it seemed to be a device Kelly used infrequently and jarringly when she couldn’t think of another way to convey a piece of information.
Rabbits of Ravensbruk & Narrator Development
I commented on Instagram when I finished that I probably should have quit reading the book when I was 100 pages in and was feeling like the book was becoming a bit of a slog. The only thing that actually kept me reading was the Author’s Note. I wasn’t surprised to hear that the Rabbits themselves were real, though I hadn’t heard of this particular atrocity at Ravensbruk before, but was fascinated to hear that Herta Oberheuser and Caroline Ferriday were both real characters. (Well…that and book-quitter-guilt. But I’m working on overcoming that!) The pull to find out whether or not Herta would get her just desserts and what happened to Caroline were the only things that kept me reading. I didn’t particularly care about them as fictional characters but knowing they were real gave me enough motivation to keep going.
I searched Amazon after finishing and was a tad disappointed to see that there doesn’t appear to be a biography of Caroline Ferriday—I’d like to know her real story, and not just this fictionalized one. She was a fascinating woman—a former Broadway actress and socialite who used her connections, money, and social capital to enormously charitable ends, working to bring the Rabbits to the US for medical treatment for their lasting injuries after Ravensbruk and working to get them reparations from the German government.
I did find Kelly’s choice of character viewpoints to tell the story of the Rabbits interesting. Caroline and Kasia are whom you would expect for narrators in this kind of story. I did, however, struggle a bit with Kasia’s voice. Kasia ages from sixteen when the book starts to forty. I would expect her voice to mature but there were moments—like when Kasia describes the medical “examination”/violation when she arrived at Ravensbruk—when Kasia’s teenager voice sounded way too old if it was supposed to be contemporary, teen Kasia talking and not adult Kasia looking back.
For the third narrator—Herta Oberheuser—to be a villain gave it a slightly unexpected twist. It always felt icky (as it absolutely should!) to read her section. She was an unrepentant Aryan-supremacist and her chapters read like it. I don’t say this to complain—Kelly gave Herta a few moments where we could see some internal struggle but didn’t apologize or temper her anti-Semitism. You do not like Herta and you aren’t supposed to. There is no apologist writing here.
Kelly also deserves kudos for presenting the United States accurately, rather than sugar-coating our own misdoings. When I learned about WWII in school (which, admittedly, is becoming longer and longer ago), the United States was pretty consistently always presented as the White Knight. I applaud Kelly for using her characters to challenge this perception. In particular regarding immigration caps during the war, Kelly indicts Roosevelt and others for having knowledge of Hitler’s Final Solution including knowledge of the death camps, yet still turning away hundreds of thousands of refugees, essentially condemning them to certain death. In particular, she mentions the MS St. Louis—a ship of 900 German Jews turned away from our border in 1939. Over a quarter of them wound up dying in death camps after being forced to return to Europe.
Kelly also makes a point during a scene of the Nuremberg trials to mention American experiments on unwilling participants as well. Indeed, American doctors throughout history have also wrongfully tested various medications and treatments on prisoners and people of color without their informed consent, the most recent and well known being the Tuskegee Syphilis Studies which only ended in 1972.
Kelly could easily have left out these details as they had no bearing on the overall plot of the book. Many readers would have been none the wiser. It is to her credit that she did make a point several times to raise American complicity in medical testing on involuntary subjects and our government’s turning its back on refugees during the war. We may have won the war, but there were certainly moments where we could have acted more honorably to save many more lives.
While I would probably never personally recommend this book to anyone, I do see its general appeal. To the extent that a novel about atrocities committed in Hitler’s death camps can ever be considered “beachy reading,” that’s what it seems to me. It’s a book you buy in paperback, dog-ear the corners, splash some pool water on by accident, and then throw on a shelf when you’re done. The language is easy to digest and no one is tripping over three-dollar words.
The thing is, I like my three-dollar words. If the writing style and word choice aren’t important to you, the underlying story here and the character of Caroline Ferriday are compelling enough for the book to be enjoyable. For me, I found myself wishing the same story had been told by a more skilled hand.
Published: Ballantine Books
Author: Martha Hall Kelly (Instagram: @marthahallkelly)
Date Read: July 28, 2017
Rating: 2 stars