This first novel follows one family through two wars, four romances and one death with enough thought and craft to remain several shelves above the potboiler section.
Lev Pearlmutter, a Jew with Eastern European roots who lives a financially comfortable life in Berlin with a German gentile wife, wants to escape “the shadowy presence of another past, another history”—i.e., his Jewishness. Yet after he joins up at the war’s outbreak in 1914 and leaves for the Eastern front, he soon falls in love with Leah, a poor, beautiful Jewish Russian peasant. She haunts him when he's back in Berlin after a relatively easy war, but it’s only when her nephew arrives in the city and falls in love with Lev’s daughter, Vicki, that the possibility of a reunion arises. Meanwhile, Lev’s son, Franz, has grown interested in the clothing-optional men’s nature camps that foster the Brown Shirts and make it difficult for the young man to conceal his homosexuality. Lev’s wife, Josephine, risks tilting the book into bodice-ripping territory in the hot and heavy moments she spends with her therapist. The rising Nazism has a fair number of targets in this one family, and Landau derives much of the novel’s meager tension from the reader’s certainty about what the characters only suspect: That it’s not a good time or place to be Jewish, gay or ambivalent. The author’s sense of history is strong in scenes of well-chosen detail, whether in village or city. At the same time, her World War I is largely bloodless, and WWII passes by in a few mentions and pages—a shadowy presence indeed.
Landau’s talents suggest she might do well with a more directly historical novel, but she has produced some strong characters in this highly readable, oddly sanitized look at assimilation and its discontents.