A necklace with a peacock pendant raises provocative questions about loss, guilt and recovery in Waldman’s intriguing new novel (Red Hook Road, 2010, etc.).
The necklace is one of thousands of items confiscated from Hungary’s Jews and found on a train seized in Austria by the U.S. Army in 1945. Assigned to guard the train, Lt. Jack Wiseman falls in love with Ilona, a Holocaust survivor. When she leaves him for a new life in Palestine, the devastated Jack takes the necklace as a memento. In 2013, dying of pancreatic cancer, he asks his granddaughter Natalie to return it. But to whom? She learns in Budapest that the necklace was depicted in Portrait of Frau E, a lost painting by a Hungarian Jewish artist who died during World War II. Amitai, an Israeli-born specialist in the recovery of art stolen during the Holocaust, persuades Natalie to join his search for Portrait of Frau E in hopes of identifying the necklace’s rightful owner. Painting and necklace both wind up in unexpected hands, and the narrative rolls back to trace the history of “Frau E.” Her maiden name is Nina Schillinger, and in 1913 she is a 19-year-old feminist whose desire to study medicine has prompted her appalled parents to send her to a psychoanalyst. (His account of their sessions provides a wickedly funny satire of sexist, sex-obsessed Freudian analysis.) Waldman paints morally complex portraits in her three linked stories. Jack’s superiors blithely furnish their quarters with tableware and crystal from the Hungarian train; the appealing Amitai retrieves looted art for profit; Budapest’s prewar Jewish bourgeoisie places crippling constraints on its daughters. Yet all three stories also show love prompting people to transcend their limitations and behave with new compassion, though Waldman is too honest not to acknowledge that it’s not always easy to do the right thing—or even to know what that is.
No big points made here, just strong storytelling combined with thoughtful exploration of difficult issues.