Tag: HistoricalFiction

Review: I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

Review: I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

I received a bound galley ARC of this book from DoubledayBooks as part of a sweepstakes. I’m grateful to Doubleday for their generosity and, because I enjoyed the book, was happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

If I tell you what happened that night in Ekaterinburg I will have to unwind my memory—all the twisted coils—and lay it in your palm. It will be the gift and the curse I bestow upon you. A confession for which you may never forgive me. Are you ready for that? Can you hold this truth in your hand and not crush it like the rest of them?…But, like so many others through the years, you have asked:

Am I truly Anastasia Romanov? A beloved daughter. A revered icon. A Russian grand duchess.

Or am I an imposter? A fraud. A liar. The thief of another woman’s legacy.

That is for you to decide of course…You will have your answers. But first you must understand why the years brought me to this point and why such loss has made the journey necessary. When I am finished, and only then, will you have the right to tell me who I am.

Lawhon’s Past Work and I Was Anastasia
I was a fan of Lawhon’s last historical fiction offering, The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress—enough so that I picked up her first Flight of Dreams. Flight of Dreams, however, has not yet made it off the TBR. If you’re a bookish person, I feel like that should accurately convey my feelings about Lawhon. If that means nothing to you, suffice to say I really like Lawhon but I don’t love Lawhon. The hang-up for me, I think, was that it felt at times like Wife/Maid/Mistress dragged a tiny bit towards the end and I wanted to get moving.

I Was Anastasia was a book I wanted to move quicker, not for the writing this time, but because it was hard to wait to see what would happen next. Of the two I’ve read, this is my favorite and it’s bumped Flight of Dreams up my list.

The structure of I Was Anastasia is non-standard to say the least. The book follows Anastasia Romanov from the time of the royal family’s removal from their home in Tsarksoe Selo to the massacre in Ekaterinburg* and Anna Anderson, the most well-known (and well-accepted during her time) woman who claimed to be Anastasia Romanov. The book flips back and forth between the two with Anderson’s chapters being longer since she’s covering decades where Anastasia chapters cover approximately sixteen months from start to finish—a pity because I wanted more Anastasia but I understand this would be an impossible feat.

Anastasia’s chapters move forward in strict chronological time and typically pick up close to where the last chapter left off, where Anderson’s chapters begin in 1970 and work backwards, jumping many years in between chapters. Lawhon’s author’s note (which you absolutely should not read until the book is over) indicates that she read all of the Anderson biographies that informed her novel backwards. This backwards-telling works in Lawhon’s hands—it could have been a train wreck, but Lawhon did an excellent job at making sure that when something was introduced for the first time, whatever the reference was wasn’t jarring and then you discovered the origin of whatever it was in the immediately following Anderson chapter while it was still fresh on your mind. I particularly enjoy non-standard devices like this or like Freshwater’s stream-of-consciousness-y Ogbanje narrators so the chronology didn’t bother me.  A few other readers who received ARCs commented on Instagram that it took them a bit to get into the narrative because of this structure but those that stuck with it indicated they got used to it pretty quickly and were enjoying the book.

One of the elements that made this structure work so well was the tale’s naturally increasing tension and Lawhon’s skillful exploitation of this tension. As Anderson moves backwards we come closer and closer to finding what it was that made her jump off a bridge in 1920—the act that set her on course to be identified as Grand Duchess Anastasia—and what exactly happened at Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg. Anna’s story becomes more dramatic the farther back in time you go with her, including being institutionalized in a psychiatric institution twice so her story has its own tension. You also know that the entire royal family (maybe including Anastasia, maybe not) is going to be brutally murdered at the end of the book where the stories come together—you dread this intersection and yet you can’t wait for it to happen.

Ignorance was helpful
Though I was a history major with a focus on eastern Europe, I managed to somehow escape taking Russian history (I can tell you some stuff about Poland and the former Czechoslovakia tho.) So while I had heard of Anastasia (most likely from the animated 1997 movie featuring the voices of Meg Ryan, Angela Lansbury, John Cusack, and Kelsey Grammer), I had no clue whether she actually did or didn’t survive and, if not, whether her body had been found. If you have a similarly convenient hole in your knowledge, I would encourage you to refrain from filling it before reading I Was Anastasia. This is one of the few times I would ever say this, but not knowing if Anderson was Anastasia or not (or even if the question had been completely settled) increased the tension of the book. Lawhon does tell you the truth and where she took liberties in her Author’s Note so have no fear that you will have the wrong information once the book concludes.

Reading I Was Anastasia made me interested in the real Romanovs and, fortuitously, Anne Bogel did a “book flight” match up last week saying that if you enjoyed I Was Anastasia, you could check out The Romanov Sisters from by Helen Rappaport (she also suggested reading Dreamland Burning along with Killers of the Flower Moon. What can I say—great minds think alike.) I’ve started The Romanov Sisters and I’m enjoying it so far. However, I’ve also strayed a little beyond Rappaport since the repeated references to Nicholas II (Anastasia’s father) as “Nicholas the Bloody” left me with some questions that weren’t answered in I Was Anastasia and, thus far, haven’t really been addressed in Rappaport.

Apparently, Nicholas II earned this apt nickname by putting down political protest (Bloody Sunday in January 1905, the resulting attempted Russian Revolution of 1905, executions of political opponents) and instituting anti-Semitic pogroms. It is unlikely that Anastasia, as a seventeen year old girl, would have had any involvement in anything political her father did. It would have been bizarre to incorporate any of this into the story about a seventeen year old girl, but…it’s also hard to ignore this side of a minor character with significance to Anastasia that went completely unaddressed.

Ultimately, I Was Anastasia raises questions for me about what stories we tell and what we chose to say about them. Because Nicholas the Bloody was merely “Papa” to Anastasia, he’s presented as a doting father (probably true based on the correspondence quoted thus far in The Romanov Sisters) and victim of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. These things can be true but since people are not ever just one thing, it can also be true that he was violently anti-Semitic and caused the deaths of scores of his own people as well as scores of Japanese during the ill-advised Russo-Japanese War. If I have any significant criticism of this book, it is that this reality should arguably have been included in the author’s note. It wasn’t directly relevant to the book (though it goes at least part of the way to explain why the revolution and resulting massacres happened) but if white authors do not at least acknowledge the atrocities committed by historical figures like this, then the result is white audiences left with the sense of Nicholas as a victim, a problematic conclusion.

I recommend I Was Anastasia for fans of historical fiction or “women’s fiction.” (Ugh, again, for that category title.) The characters are compelling and the structure is different but not so unusual that it should be a turn-off. By telling the story the way she does, Lawhon makes you feel for Anderson, makes you want her to be Anastasia. I appreciate a skillful author who can make you feel for someone who may not be innocent.

Published: March 27, 2018 by Doubleday Books (@DoubledayBooks) available for pre-order now
Author: Ariel Lawhon (@ariel.lawhon)
Date read: March 17, 2018
Rating: 3 3/4 stars

*Because Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet and there’s no one accepted transliteration for many of the letters, there are many different ways to spell many of the Russian names, places, and words used in I Was Anastasia. I typically stuck with those chosen by Lawhon, though as I’m reading The Romanov Sisters, they aren’t necessarily the ones chosen by Rappaport. (Highlighting the continued disagreements.)

Review: As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner

Review: As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner

Death comes for us all in one way or another. It is a certainty. Our lives will one day end, and most of us never know when. Interestingly enough, it is our mortality that gives our existence its value and beauty. If our days were not numbered, we probably wouldn’t care how we spent them. How does this knowledge that we are mortal affect our choices? The risks we take? The risks we don’t?

As Bright as Heaven goes back and forth in its narrators, moving between the perspectives of Pauline Bright and her three daughters. The events of the book span eight years during which each of the girls grows up—both by the simple circumstance of time passing as well as the events of life—including the Great War and the Spanish Flu—that force them to mature more quickly than they might have otherwise.

When the book opens, Pauline has just lost her infant son, brother to fifteen year-old Evie, twelve year-old Maggie, and six year-old Willa. Following on the heels of this intensely personal experience of Death comes an invitation to move to Philadelphia, for Pauline’s husband Thomas to learn the business of and take over his bachelor Uncle Fred’s mortuary. As Thomas and Pauline learn the business and experience the respect and, at times, gentleness of Death, the Spanish Flu arrives in Philadelphia, delivering a parentless baby boy into their arms. After the waves of flu and war recede, the Bright family is left amidst the ruins of a beleaguered and half-emptied city, looking different than they did when they arrived and struggling with what it means to move on with a new composition of family.

The joke may be getting a little tired now, with my having made it a few times on Instagram, but my timing in reading As Bright As Heaven (and, arguably, Berkley’s timing in publishing it) was not ideal. It’s a lovely book…to read any other time than flu season. I started carrying hand sanitizer and became wary of touching surfaces in public spaces. Although, my partner caught the flu shortly after I finished this book and I didn’t, so perhaps I have Meissner to thank for my health this year.

Admittedly, I was also a touch trepidatious about using a Book of the Month credit on As Bright As Heaven. I liked but didn’t love Meissner’s last book, A Bridge Across the Ocean. My bookshelves are nearly full so I only keep books I love enough to share or to reread, which extends to trying to buy only those physical books I think will merit the shelf space. Thankfully, As Bright As Heaven is a book worth keeping.

One of the main reasons I think I was able to get into Bright more than Bridge is that I could connect to the characters far more. I was never able to really identify with the women in Bridge and so never got past the feeling of watching someone else’s life from the outside. That disconnect also likely colored my reaction to how the story resolved—since I couldn’t connect, I wasn’t as invested in their endings. With Bright, Meissner created four distinct female characters, each of whom had a trait or traits I was able to identify with. Though it is hard to pick, I loved Evie most for her bookishness, her seriousness, and her choices that ultimately threw convention entirely out the window. It’s us serious rule-followers who, when we finally find someone or something worth throwing the rules out for entirely, can surprise you the most.

Pauline, fierce in her mothering, chose to keep Death near until its presence was a comfort rather than a scourge. Maggie, most like her mother, came into her own as she mothered little Alex, the baby found in the flu-ridden tenement. And Willa—strong-willed, lovely Willa grew up far before she should have and yet, in the acting older than her age, came to know who she really was.

Encountering History Through Fiction
As has been mentioned repeatedly, engaging historical fiction is one of my favorite genres to read. I was a history major and enjoy reading about different periods of time, yet the human element often felt like it was missing in the average history class. (This may be a good time to mention that I was the kid who skimmed ahead to figure out when we’d be reading about the Donner party in 11th grade American History and baked sugar cookie people to bring in to eat in class that day. Arguably morbid, though you can’t say I didn’t insert a human element into the class. Only the teacher really appreciated the timing, though my classmates probably enjoyed the cookies.)

While writing is always high on my list of what makes a book a quality read for me, I can sacrifice lyrical prose when the character development is spot-on and the lives of the characters compelling. Bright hits my buttons on the character development, though this isn’t to say its poorly written. I had nothing to complain about in the tone or word choice, there just weren’t paragraphs I wanted to re-read or copy into my reading journal to appreciate again.

The characters were what drew me into the story, kept me reading late, and made the terror of the Spanish flu all the more real. I had heard the numbers about the flu, had realized intellectually that it had overlapped with the Great War, but hadn’t really thought about what that would have meant to the average household. Particularly in places like Philadelphia, there were not any places that were untouched by Death in the time those two overlapped. By making me care about her characters, Meissner made this specter of Death felt more real, more terrible and terrifying.

And, revisiting my timing joke from before, perhaps this was the year to read this book. We forget that people can die from the flu—it feels like something that doesn’t really happen anymore and yet, thousands have died this year. Nothing like the Spanish Flu, of course, but enough to remember that it’s possible. To remind you that, as in As Bright As Heaven, Death is always close by, even if we are not as aware of its presence as Pauline and her daughters.

If I have any complaints, it’s that the book did become predictable at times. If there are any teachers out there looking for examples of foreshadowing, there are some rather heavy-handed examples in Bright. Though, to be fair, when the war and the flu are killing everyone, it’s hard not to see some of the death coming.

To Meissner’s credit, even the events I saw coming I didn’t want to see. I wanted to be wrong, which doesn’t happen often. There was no satisfaction here in being right.

This is a book I would recommend for fans of historical fiction and “women’s fiction” (ugh, again, to the name of that category). I probably wouldn’t recommend this to my coworker whose reading list is drawn almost exclusively from The New York Times book review but will recommend it to my mother. If you’re a fan of relatively easy to read, plot-driven historical narratives with strong, well-developed female characters, this is a book I would recommend to you.

Published: February 6, 2018 by Berkley (@berkleypub)
Author: Susan Meissner (@soozmeissner)
Date read: January 19, 2018
Rating: 3 ½ stars

Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn


“Lili,” Eve asked impulsively. “Are you ever afraid?” Lili turned, rain dripping off the edge of her umbrella in a silver curtain between her and Eve. “Yes, just like everybody else. But only after the danger is done—before that, fear is an indulgence.” She slid her hand through Eve’s elbow. “Welcome to the Alice Network.”

Loosely based on the true story of a female-run spy network during World War I in France, The Alice Network follows Eve, a young spy working in the network, and Charlie, a woman searching for her beloved cousin shortly after the Second World War. The book flashes back and forth between Eve as a young woman in the network and Eve as an older, broken woman helping Charlie on her quest. Adding to the drama, Charlie is not the upper-class socialite her family tries to force her to be and is running from her own demons. Raising questions of what it means to serve and to save, The Alice Network is a compelling story about the largely overlooked contribution of a daring group of women during the Great War.

The Power of Solidarity of Women
The Alice Network is, above all else, a story of the power and bravery of women. The actual Alice Network run by Louise de Bettignies (“Alice Dubois”) is credited with saving the lives of more than a thousand British soldiers during the nine months of the height of its operation. She even obtained advance information on the German attack on Verdun, but the military officials in charge refused to believe the information. Verdun was ultimately the longest lasting and one of the most costly battles during World War I.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is a quote from Louise de Bettignies taken from a primary source written by someone familiar with those in the network.

“Bah.” Lili gave a wave of her hand, a hand so thin it was nearly transparent in the sunlight. “I know I’ll be caught one day, but who cares? I shall at least have served. So let’s hurry, and do great things while there is yet time.”

While The Alice Network is a work of fiction and Quinn admits she took quite a bit of license with the story, I wish there were more books like this. I wish any of the history classes I took in high school or college had bothered to include the contributions of women like these.

In the flashbacks, Quinn makes you care for Eve and Lilli/Louise/Alice deeply. The book stays true to the end result of the network and the woman who ran it, with these pages being some of the most emotionally wrenching of any book I’ve read recently. (This is not a book to be read in public as you draw closer to the end—the notes I kept while I read say “Damn you Kate Quinn for making me cry in a Starbucks.) I tried to find more on Louise de Bettignies after I finished The Alice Network but there seems to be very little out there. This is not terribly surprising but is frustrating and makes books like The Alice Network all the more relevant.

During the alternating scenes with Charlie, Eve is older and broken. She survived the war physically but little is left of her spirit—as the journey to find what happened to Charlie’s cousin Rose unfolds, so does Eve’s story, so that the flashbacks are presented as Eve telling Charlie and Finn (Eve’s handsome Scottish handyman….you can guess where that’s going to go) what happened to her. The deeper the trio travels into France, the deeper the reader gets into Eve’s story and the closer the reader gets to the traumatic events that led her to be the woman she is today. I occasionally found Charlie annoying, though I started to see her more as the vehicle through which the reader saw and learned more about Eve. With the book structured as it was, you get both Eve’s interpretation and story of what happened to her as well as an outsider’s view of who the woman Eve is now. The back-and-forth telling helped make Eve a more well-rounded character and gave you a “hook” to want to know how Eve of WWI became this broken Eve after WWII.

There was a clear villain (besides generally the Germans) and Quinn was masterful at making him so evil he was almost serpentine. My skin would crawl when he was on the scene and my heart would cheer each time Eve outwitted him or used him in the spy ring.

The Spies
As to the three spies you meet in the book, The Alice Network simultaneously emphasized both the amazing cunning and skills of the spies like Lili/Louise/Alice and Eve as well as their ordinary-ness. Besides learning multiple languages at early ages, there is nothing particularly extraordinary about the lives these women led prior to being called up to service in the Network. Fictional Eve was a secretary, a square peg in a round hole, wanting to serve her country more directly than was typically allowed for women during the First World War. Louise was a poor aristocrat from a family with nothing left but its titles. And yet, women like these did something extraordinary, risked their lives in the service of others.

War Novels
By setting The Alice Network when she did, Quinn wrote both a World War I novel (Eve’s chapters) and a World War II novel (Charlie’s chapters). While I haven’t reviewed many on the blog, I am a big fan of a well-done World War II novel. I adore The Nightingale and All the Light We Cannot See and have read many of the other significant WWII novels published recently. (Knowing what a well-done WWII novel reads like is one of the things that made Lilac Girls so disappointing.)

So where does The Alice Network fit within the spectrum of recent WWII novels? Quinn isn’t quite Kristin Hannah or Anthony Doerr but her writing was heads and shoulders above Martha Hall Kelly in my estimation. I enjoyed Quinn’s writing, but there wasn’t anything in particular that made me pause to re-read a paragraph or turn of phrase. Her writing was, however, clear, engaging, and relatable. It has mass appeal—it won’t be accused of needing an editor but no one is going to accuse it of being too high-brow either. It did get off to a bit of a slow start but a little over a third of the way in, the pace picked up and I didn’t want to put the book down.

Minor annoyances
I appreciated that the author made Charlie interested in math—any time I see a girl into STEM in a book I want to cheer. I’m not a STEM-er myself but since this particular interest in underrepresented, I like seeing it. For Charlie, however, Quinn went a little over the top. Charlie thinks in math equations that bordered on silly, detracted from the story, and impaired my ability to take Charlie seriously.

Sample equations included “One scribbled address plus one dash of resolve multiplied to the power of ten,” “Rose plus me equaled happiness,” and “bullets plus blood plus threats of imminent death equaled a certain intimacy.” There were one or two that were funny (“boy plus girl multiplied by whiskey and proximity” made me chuckle) but on the whole they were overdone and made Charlie seem frivolous rather than serious. In the end, silly equations multiplied by eyerolls equals a negative star.

My only other hangup in the book is how frequently one of the pregnant characters drank. She was frequently drunk and I was worried her child was going to be born well-pickled. Some Googling tells me that it wasn’t until the early 70s that doctors identified Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and a connection was solidly made between drinking and pregnancy, so this character’s drinking like a fish may have been consistent with the times. I just couldn’t take it, though. We know better now and so it seemed something that would be highly distracting to modern audiences. There are times when this character needs to be less inhibited so I could have been okay with it a few times but this too reached the point of frustration and distraction.

Tiny spoiler coming up—scroll if you want to skip it.

The book does wrap up somewhat neater than is likely for someone who has suffered what Eve and Charlie have, though I don’t begrudge Quinn for the happy-ish ending. The Alice Network is a book that is going for mass appeal and isn’t the kind of book that ends with misery and woe. There are so many other things in novels that require the suspension of belief, that this relatively happy ending for Charlie and Eve doesn’t feel like a terrible stretch, even if aspects of it felt a bit too easy.

Published June 6, 2017 by William Morrow (@williammorrowbooks)
Author: Kate Quinn (@katequinn5975)
Date read: August 9, 2017
Rating: 4 Stars

Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders


The boy’s eyes flew open.
-roger bevins iii

Strange here, he said.
Not strange, said Mr. Bevins. Not really.
One gets used to it, said the Reverend.
If one belongs here, said Mr. Bevins.
Which you don’t, said the Reverand.
-hans vollman

Lincoln in the Bardo unfolds over the course of the night in which President Lincoln buries his beloved son, Willie. As Lincoln traverses the graveyard in his grief, the reader comes to know a myriad of souls inhabiting a second layer of the graveyard—those buried there but not yet moved on to what is next. As Lincoln’s story is told by an overlap of historical sources, the voices of the Bardo rise and fall over one another, setting out a shadowy world of pain, fear, and longing. As the night passes, the Bardo’s inhabitants come together as one—for as much as they fear the matterlightblooming phenomenon that heralds a soul’s departure from the Bardo, they know Willie, sweet, innocent Willie, does not belong in this third place.

The danger of high expectations
As with many other books, I came to Lincoln in the Bardo with exceedingly high expectations. It had been hyped by all of the snooty places I find good books—NPR, Time, The Atlantic, and my coworker Peter. While I’ve never read them, Saunders’s success with short stories made everyone go mad for his first novel before it was ever published. The cover flap uses words like “literary master” and “most original, transcendent moving work yet.”

It would likely have been impossible for any book to live up to the hype created for this one. This expectation colored my initial reaction to the book—having expected the highest highs, something less made me feel that it was awful. Having had more breathing room from the book and having flipped through it again preparing for this review, it is an excellent book–particularly in the writing if not the structure. It’s not a book I’m likely to forget anytime soon.

As to the structure, when I was younger, I used to dream up fake histories to insert into daydreams, thinking up books that blended the history with the action of my characters. In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders has taken that structure that hasn’t worked in far less capable hands (including my own, chubby five year old hands) and somehow made it work.

To craft Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders takes excerpts from what a few quick Google searches appear to be actual historical sources and blends them together into a narrative. The narrative pieces themselves connect and read in some places like a conversation between historical sources. In the concept and on the written page, the effect is remarkable—I’m not sure Saunders tells any of his own narrative about Lincoln’s life outside of the graveyard with his own words (unless some of the sources aren’t real—admittedly, I didn’t check them all).

On audio, however, this format works significantly less well. The citations for the historical sources break up the flow of the audio so frequently but so quickly that they become confusing. After the first cite, the citation for an historical source simple becomes “Author, op. cit.” In the written book (as you can see to the right), it’s fine. The eye can skim past with little interruption. In the audio, a different voice reads the citations so that seemingly out of nowhere the voice of what sounds like a preternaturally calm flight attendant interrupts the story to say “Leech, op. cit” and before you can wrap you head around what she just said, the next reader is talking and reading the next quote. The voice is jarring enough that it can’t easily be ignored and, as a result, I’m sure I missed much of the first several chapters of the book.

And yet….the audio.
I would not, however, go so far as to say that this is a book that doesn’t work in audio. On the contrary, the alternating, non-historical sources—the voices Saunders actually wrote–make this one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. An impressive cast of voices including Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Bradley Whitford, Bill Hader, Megan Mullally, Rainn Wilson, Keegan-Michael Key, Mary Karr, and Don Cheadle all voice various souls stuck in the Bardo with Willie Lincoln. It is in this conversation between these souls that the audiobook shines head and shoulders above the physical book. Almost ever voice seems perfectly chosen for its character, adding depth and dimension to the anguish and obsession experienced by those in the Bardo. Here too, where Saunders was able to stretch his creativity, the writing shines and there are moments like the quote above that made my exquisite-writing-loving-heart skip a beat.

Developing his cast of characters
Warning of a teeny, tiny spoiler that you find out fairly quickly in the book……
::look away now if you’re a spoiler-stickler::
One of the particularly creative choices Saunders made with the Bardo-ians, was to have the bodies of his Bardo inhabitants be reflective of what they were obsessed with at the moment of their deaths. Nick Offerman’s character, Hans Vollman, was a gentleman who married a woman much younger than he. Rather than force himself on her, he let her slowly, slowly come to love him…unfortunately for him he died before they ever consummated their marriage. As a result, Vollman is obsessed with sex with his wife so his physical body is naked with a penis several feet long. Roger Bevins III, another character, having committed suicide but regretted it at the last moment, is many-eyed, many-nosed, and many-handed, obsessed with the sights, smells, and touch of things he can no longer experience. This choice on the part of Saunders is unlike anything I’ve seen and adds a dimension to his characters that is unexpected and, on the whole, well done.

Edgy for the sake of edge
There are, however, some choices that it seems Saunders made for no other reason than to be edgy. Vollman’s character is an excellent example. If he were naked and simply erect, this would have conveyed the same idea without Saunders repeatedly mentioning that his gigantic member is swollen and wagging around, three feet long. Similarly, a pivotal moment in the book is told from an outside perspective of four characters who are midst orgy. Telling of the event from outside makes sense and is well-done…but the characters being midst orgy feels overdone. Like it was difficult to work sex into a book about an eleven-year old boy grieving his father but, gosh darn it, you can’t have a book without sex. These random, unnecessary, adult details that serve no purpose but to shock are the result.

Reading along
I’m not sure I’ve ever thought this about a book before now, but the best way to experience Lincoln in the Bardo, at least for the first several chapters, is to listen to the audiobook while following along with the physical book. The physical book alone loses the power the impressive cast puts behind Saunders’s characters while the audio alone is incredibly hard to follow until you’ve wrapped your head around Saunders’s structure of his historical quotes with citations. Because of the odd structure, this isn’t a book I would recommend for anyone that doesn’t like books that aren’t a little frustrating—for Lincoln in the Bardo shows its genius when you push past the confusion and surrender to experiencing Saudners’s mad world-between-worlds.

Published February 14, 2017 by Random House (@randomhouse)
Author: George Saunders
Date read: May 18, 2017
Rating: 3 Stars upon initial listen, 4 Stars as I sat with the book

Review: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly


“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.

American Evils
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