The inhospitable farmhouse of a cranky German dowager becomes home to three generations of unhappy women.
Fleeing Prussia in the wake of World War II, having had to leave her baby by the side of the road to freeze, Hildegard von Kamcke arrives with her remaining daughter, Vera, at the farm of Ida Eckhoff and her son, Karl, or at least the “cardboard cutout” of Karl who returned from battle. “Two women and only one stove never bode well,” and Hildegard’s marriage to Karl only makes the tension between the women worse. By the time Vera is 14, Ida has hanged herself in the attic and Hildegard has run off with another man, the father of a half sister who will be named Marlene. In an interwoven storyline set in the present day, Marlene’s daughter Anne’s marriage falls apart. She takes refuge at the farm, where her aunt Vera still lives, though she's knocked off Karl a while back. If this sounds hard to follow, it is. A bunch of minor characters with unimportant roles in the plot—if there is one—don’t help. One enjoyable aspect of the book is its ironic take on the unrequited enthusiasm of urban types for country living. Burkhard Weisswerth, for example, moves out to the area planning to start "A Taste of Country Life, a magazine for people who’d had enough, downshifters like himself….A man never forgot the first potato that he took out of the earth with his own hands…and, yes, it had humbled him, sensitized him to the wonderful, simple folk out here who lived from the work of their hands.” These simple folk, on the other hand, are unimpressed. When Anne enrolls her son in day care, the director is dismayed but not surprised to learn that little Leon is a vegetarian and calls his mother by her first name, and of course the kid shows up with head lice a few weeks later.
Hansen’s debut novel was a surprise bestseller in Germany but will probably find a cooler reception here.