by Julie Orringer
This big yawning novel starts with a simple, young Jewish man named Andras. He’s an aspiring architect from Hungary, who moves to Paris to study. From there we meet Klara and the two begin a tumultuous affair. That covers a tiny splice of the beginning of the novel. After that it’s an exploration of Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s. We see the Germans rise to power, the change in attitude towards the Jewish community across the continent, the other people who are persecuted, etc. It reminded me in a lot of ways of Birdsong, another book that begins with a love story but quickly escalates into an exploration of war and its dehumanizing effect.
Andras and Klara’s romance is certainly central to the whole book, but life gets in the way of their little world. Their troubles and Klara’s past seem so unimportant in the larger scheme of things. As signs of war start building all around them, their options begin to disappear. They realize that whatever happens, if they can stay together they will be alright. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible when your country is at war.
It really feels like two very different books. One tells the story of an ambitious man who falls in love with an older woman. The other is about a Jewish man trying to survive the horrors of World War II in Budapest. Both books are beautiful, but by the end of the novel it’s hard to even recognize the characters you met at the beginning. I suppose that realistically that’s exactly what war does to people. It strips away the things that make them who they are and turns them into something harder. This book shows that transformation in heartbreaking way.
BOTTOM LINE: At times I felt like I couldn’t see the trees for the forest. The writing is beautiful, the story is powerful, but there’s just so much there that it’s easy to get a bit lost. I still loved reading it and would highly recommend it to anyone who loves WWII stories.
“Her starfish pin glittered like a beautiful mistake, a festive scrap torn from an ocean-liner ball, blown across the sea and caught by chance in the dark waves of her hair.”
“The scent of it blew through the channel of the Seine like the perfume of a girl on the threshold of a party. Her foot in its satin shoe had not yet crossed the sill, but everyone knew she was there. In another moment she would enter. All of Paris seemed to hold its breath, waiting.”
“I wouldn’t trade your complication for anyone else’s simplicity.”
“Strange that war could lead you involuntarily to forgive a person who didn’t deserve forgiveness, just as it might make you kill a man you didn’t hate.”