Scam artist or Holocaust orphan? Deserving scorn or pity? A beguiling stranger unsettles a New York Jewish family in this haunting tale of the perils of trust . . . and mistrust.
Her manner naïve, her figure Rodin-lush, Polish sculptress Karolina Staszek surprises. Two cousins, against their wills, fall hard for her, and Mekler (Sunrise Shows Late, 1997, etc.) renders both their resistance and rapture convincing. Newly arrived in New York City in 1967, the comely cipher finds Manhattan part love-in, part freak-out. She sympathizes with Vietnam War protesters clubbed in the streets, takes as a lover the married director of the Polish-American Foundation and lands a job as nanny for the darling daughter of staid accountant Noah Landau. Endangering his marriage, he’s smitten with Karolina, who hardly leads him on, but needs him to believe her story. And it’s a stunner. Coming across a newspaper obit for Noah’s Uncle Jake, Karolina becomes intuitively convinced that she’s Jake’s daughter, given up as a child to a Catholic family back in her homeland. Sheltered on their farm from Nazi invaders, she’d grown up clutching rosaries and a reflexive anti-Semitism. Noah’s intrigued; his cousin, Philip, is suspect. For, isn’t it obvious that this shiksa fraud is after their uncle’s will? It’s money, after all, that Philip’s desperate for, to free him from his dead-end law practice. And yet, as her memories begin trickling back—the names of Jake’s dead wife and daughter, telling details, insider clues—even Philip can’t easily discount her. Then, after coaxing her into a trip back to Poland to research her claim, he finds himself strangely but seriously infatuated. As the family mystery is gradually revealed, Philip must contend with the ghosts of his own bigotry, nearly as fierce as the kind Karolina must herself overcome.
A novel meditation on the ways we manufacture memory.