In this fascinating personal history, the rise and fall of a family’s fortunes parallels the travails of 20th-century Poland.
Tarnowski’s account of his glamorous aristocratic forbears is charming enough that readers will forgive, and eventually come to embrace, the fact that every woman is more beautiful and plucky than the last, every man a dashing war hero. The drama begins on the eve of World War I, when Tarnowski’s grandfather shoots himself in the chest just hours after his wedding. Count Hieronim Tarnowski survives, but rumors of sexual “difficulties” dog his marriage, one of many failed unions in a family whose romantic adventures and serial partner-swapping cause more damage than the Nazi or Soviet armies. Driven by bed-hopping, the Tarnowski saga moves from halcyon days of lavish Polish estates with wild boars kept as pets through benighted refugee transports to desert scenes with Polish regiments in Palestine and Egypt. The author, a former reporter for Reuters, was born in Geneva while his parents were fleeing the Nazi occupation of Poland. He recreates the family history through interviews with his paternal aunt Sophie, a headstrong beauty who founded the Polish Red Cross in Cairo, and his elderly father Stas, an abusive but compelling cad who beat his young wife (the author’s mother Chouquette) and betrayed her on both their wedding night and the night their son was born. Anecdotes of glistening parties and heady indiscretions are delivered in a light tone that belies the tragedies faced during those years by the family—and the continent. Both of Sophie’s young sons died before they turned two; Tarnowski’s mother and maternal aunt committed suicide after the war. The author gives only passing glances to the concomitant horrors of the trenches and the concentration camps. Their privileged position in life protected the Tarnowskis, who destroyed themselves from the inside.
Charming, melancholic and engrossing.