A finely crafted novel about family, identity, and the precariousness of comfort.

THE NUMISMATIST'S WIFE

Japhet tells the story of a German Jewish woman’s search for love and God during World War I in this debut historical novel.

Dana Newman discovers an ancient Roman coin at a Stormville, New York, flea market in 1999, which reminds her husband’s relative of an old family story from Germany. Ilse Ehrenkrantz, who was 17 in 1912, fell in love with her stepcousin Georg, a skilled fencer and womanizer who decided to join the Prussian Army. He was also a numismatist—a coin collector—and he sent Ilse a necklace made from a Roman denarius that bore the image of Apollo. Ilse’s father, a Jewish publisher, was doing well, but some of his friends complained about persistent anti-Semitism. Ilse, meanwhile, felt confined by her life in Munich’s middle-class Jewish community. Her interest in religious-themed art led to curiosity about Christianity itself, and she began to associate more with the Christian girls at her school. “I want God to enlighten my heart,” she told her sister. “I want faith, perhaps faith in Jesus as Savior and Redeemer, as Messiah. I want to understand the religion which inspires artists so powerfully.” Georg, too, thought of converting—a necessity for becoming a Prussian officer. However, Ilse risked losing the love of her family if she turned her back on Judaism. As war loomed on Germany’s horizon, Ilse had to decide whether her infatuations—with Georg and with Jesus—could sustain her through what was to come. It was a decision that would reverberate through the rest of the century. Japhet’s prose skillfully evokes the early-20th-century period, from the diction of the characters to the details of their clothes and furniture. The novel’s depiction of upwardly mobile Jews in prewar Munich and Berlin opens up a world that one rarely sees portrayed in fiction, and one gets the sense of what assimilation meant to some of the members of Ilse’s generation. It’s a mannered novel about wealthy people, calling to mind the work of such authors as Edith Wharton or E.M. Forster, and its pace mirrors the literature of the time in which most of it is set. For all the talk of art and aspiration, however, the author ensures that history’s horrors are never far below the surface: “When I came to Germany, there was a famine in Berdichev,” recalls Sara, a poor immigrant who would later become the wife of a wealthy businessman and take Ilse under her wing. “Starving villagers stole bread from the children of others, and especially from poor Jewish children…be glad you have never seen hunger, and mothers watching their children die.” Japhet manages to weave the histories of the Jewish people, Germany, socialism, and art into the narrative, providing context that makes the actions of the characters feel tragically inevitable. The frame narrative, set in 1999, feels largely unnecessary, as the primary plot builds toward a conclusion that’s mostly satisfying, if slightly predictable.

A finely crafted novel about family, identity, and the precariousness of comfort.

Pub Date: Feb. 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4808-5802-2

Page Count: 194

Publisher: Archway Publishing

Review Posted Online: April 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2019

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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