A baker enlists a Nazi hunter to entrap a nonagenarian who may have brutalized her grandmother in Picoult’s ambitious latest.
Sage, who works in a bakery attached to a New Hampshire retreat center, prefers the overnight hours bakers keep. Her face is scarred (from a trauma not immediately revealed), and she is mourning her mother’s recent death. Having abandoned her Jewish faith, Sage is estranged from her two sisters, but she is still close to her grandmother, Minka, a Holocaust survivor. Josef, a much respected 95-year-old retired German teacher, confesses to Sage that he is a former SS officer, real name Reiner, who once was an Auschwitz guard. Sage calls in Leo, a Washington, D.C.–based FBI agent who specializes in tracking down Nazi fugitives. Leo asks her to elicit Minka’s story, never before told, in hopes of finding an eyewitness to Josef’s atrocities. Reiner’s and Minka’s wartime experiences form the bulk of the novel. Reiner, a bully recruited early by the Hitler Youth and later by the SS, is soon inured to slaughter by presiding over mass killings of Jews in Poland. Later assigned to Auschwitz along with his (comparatively speaking) gentler and more sensitive brother Franz, Reiner distinguishes himself as a particularly brutal overseer of the women’s camp. Franz, meanwhile, keeps his hands relatively blood-free by supervising the camp’s accounting office. Minka’s story takes her from an idyllic childhood as a baker’s daughter to the misery of the Polish ghetto and imprisonment in Auschwitz. Readers will see the final twist coming far in advance due to unwieldy plot contrivances which only serve to emphasize what they are intended to conceal.
Still, a fictional testament as horrifying as it is suspenseful.