In this historical novel, a young Jewish musician navigates the pressures of love and intolerance in fin-de-siècle Germany.
Berlin, 1896. Promising young pianist Lisi von Schwabacher has just returned home from three years of study in Vienna. Her great talent—as well as her father’s banking fortune—quickly attracts suitors, including Wilhelm von Boening, the son of a count who owes Lisi’s father quite a bit of money, and the widower Prince Egon von Wittenbach. But Lisi is not impassioned by the idea of settling down as a wife, especially since modernity is quickly supplying alternate models for how to exist as a woman in society. Her father’s cousin Countess von Kalckreuth, for example, is wealthy, unmarried, and a well-known hostess of salons—a remarkable position of independence and prominence for a Jewish woman. Lisi wants to be modern as well, leading a life built around art and ideas rather than her ability to bear children or finance a husband’s pursuits with her father’s money. With this in mind, she begins an affair with the poor but handsome Wilhelm even though she has no intention of marrying him. At first it is exciting, but a pregnancy soon reveals her incautious fling to be a life-altering error. Her options are not as clear-cut as they may seem. First of all, Lisi is convinced that Wilhelm is much more interested in the von Schwabacher fortune than he is in her. Second, her father’s warning about the latent anti-Semitism of gentile suitors continues to ring in her ears: “It’s always the same story. These noblemen who marry Jewesses want only their money, and not their children.” Can Lisi still carve out the life she imagined for herself, or has she fallen into one of the many traps laid by a society eager to squash the ambitions of both women and Jews?
Mack’s elegant prose summons the era by evoking the literature of the time period. Readers can be forgiven for thinking they are perusing a genuine Victorian novel: “This encounter, the first since the final lunch at Kleinneubach, deeply unsettled Boening. For several minutes after it, he felt a dull heat rising and falling in his innards, as well as a mental haze so acute that he was beset with the impulse to shake his head free of it.” The book often makes use of letters, which are both linguistically convincing and quivering with intimated desires. Lisi is a character worthy of Edith Wharton, compellingly driven and finely flawed. Her Jewish background, paired with the German setting, lends additional dimensions to what might otherwise be a fairly conventional bit of historical fiction. The supporting characters are also drawn in enticing detail, transcending the archetypal roles they fill as relatives, friends, and potential lovers, particularly Lisi’s parents, Magnus and Susannah, and her cousin Klara. Mack succeeds in delivering the two primary expectations of this sort of novel: Readers will be thoroughly immersed in the time period and fully invested in the fate of its hero.
A rich tale set in the underexplored Wilhelmine Germany.