The story of two lovers whose lives are profoundly shaken by echoes of the Holocaust: a German medievalist and the woman who, while writing his biography, falls in love with him.
Born and raised in New York City, Hester Rosenfeld quickly discarded the embarrassing ways of her Jewish immigrant parents, with their longing to become, in her eyes sentimentally, “American.” Since leaving them behind, she has risen through the academy and even achieved modest commercial success with her “kitchen table histories”—featuring the everyday lives of unremarkable people. Though her specialty has been Colonial America, she meets Heinrich Falk (b. 1943)—referred to throughout as HF—and is mesmerized by his steely German good looks. The sex, as in most Kirshenbaum fictions (Pure Poetry, 2000, etc.), is earth-moving, and Hester happily adopts the role of official mistress to the married Falk, even as she researches the history of his numerous past infidelities, quartet of marriages, and irrepressible womanizing. As it happens, Falk has no official, verifiable Nazi darkness in his past—a brother in the Hitler Youth who possibly engaged in terrorism, an aunt who joined the Nazi party early—yet when Falk, overtired and frustrated, cautions Hester against seeming to be “a greedy Jew,” she realizes she cannot abide him any longer. During her research, she comes to terms with aspects of her own ambivalence toward her parents (she learns they were forced to flee Falk’s hometown of Munich) but resists Falk’s attempts to get her to look closely at her own past. Hester and Falk angrily part ways, having realized that they—and their histories—are forever irreconcilable.
Kirshenbaum offers many finely nuanced moments and raises unexpected moral issues—about Germany and the Jews, about the nature of history and biography—but this is not a novel of strenuous moral purpose. It'll be most enjoyed for its agile style and Hester’s distinctively intelligent voice.