Through two world wars, a German mother strives to bond with her estranged children in a debut novel inspired by real-life family history.
“I never had much patience for stories without any romance in them,” admits 96-year-old Margarete Leitloff. “I still don’t.” With that dictum in mind, Margarete (Grete to her friends) recalls her two-year courtship with Dr. Kasimir May, heir to a Polish chemical plant and nearly a decade Grete’s senior. When the two were finally wed in 1911, then-20-year-old Grete left her native Berlin for Kasimir’s hometown of Posen, where she tried in vain to win over her new husband’s mother, Helena, a domineering woman who loathed her daughter-in-law’s Prussian heritage and unrefinedness. Their relationship became all the more strained after Grete gave birth to Hela and Romek, whom Helena insisted Grete not breast-feed herself, as that activity was “rather something for the peasants.” While Helena grew more overbearing, Kasimir grew more emotionally withdrawn, eventually stunning Grete with his decision to fight in World War I. She accused him of deserting the family; he assured her the conflict would end in a few weeks. Thus arrives the novel’s first of many devastating blows: Kasimir’s death in action. Helena threatened to disinherit her grandchildren if Grete moved them to Germany, and homesick Grete left her children behind for life in war-ravaged Berlin. Over the following decades, as she contended with con men, family scandal, suicide, the rise of Hitler, and the second world war, Grete doggedly fought to win back the love of stubborn Hela and nurture the far more welcoming Romek. Though the story’s emotional stakes remain incredibly high, the prose rarely rises to the occasion. Grete’s narrative voice relies on exposition and frustrating clichés, sometimes many in a row: “Several days passed before the numbness subsided and the first tears ran down from my soul.” Every so often, however, she makes well-tread subject matter feel fresh, as when she observes a newborn as nothing more than “a dark-red bundle of screams.”
Uninspired prose makes this family epic less affecting that it ought to be.