A debut historical novel explores love, war, mystery, and magic.
Queen Mathilda of Flanders, dead since the Norman Conquest, is a spirit awaiting a new life. In 1923, she becomes Alenka Kaminski’s daughter. Unfortunately, she dies in childbirth, and Mathilda is forced to become Goldye Finkelstein, daughter of a woman no spirit would inhabit. So begins Gaal’s adult fairy tale. The action alternates between Nazi-occupied Warsaw, where Goldye works her magic, and modern-day California, where Maude Wasserman frets over her finances, aging mother, pregnant daughter, and life in general. Before the Nazi invasion, Goldye, a Jew living in the Warsaw ghetto, goes to widower Jan Kaminski’s (Alenka’s husband) shop for thread to sew the dreams of her imaginary friend, Mathilda. Jan, an Aryan Pole, befriends Goldye and they discover the dreams she sews come true after she embroiders a wedding dress. Her reputation grows and young Warsaw women flock to Jan’s shop for Goldye’s wedding gowns. Eventually, she falls in love with Lev, a Resistance fighter. She begins to sew hummingbirds that inspire people to aid the struggle, leading to a deadly cat-and-mouse game with the Nazis. Meanwhile, in California, Maude discovers that her mother, Bea, a woman lost to Alzheimer’s who never sewed in her life, has stitched a replica of the Bayeux Tapestry, a masterpiece from Mathilda’s time. Gaal’s delightfully sardonic and neuroses-filled portrait of Maude is in perfect counterpoint to the people of Goldye’s world. The author’s beautifully written narrative is filled with wit, action, mythical allusion (“She felt like Sisyphus”), and characters so real that readers will feel they know them personally. Gaal’s powers of description in this poignant tale are evidenced in her depiction of the Bayeux replica: “The needlework appeared to be a story told in wool. A hunter-green horse reared. A helmeted soldier—chestnut leggings and silver mail—sat atop a mauve horse, urging it forward and thrusting a glinting wool sword into an eggshell wooly sky.”
The author sews her varied themes, characters, and surprises into a seamless narrative that is essential reading for anyone who loves elegant writing.