Set in the early ’70s and layering fact, fiction and family, this mainly epistolary novel showcases the complexity and fragility of interconnected lives.
Debut author Holden introduces Bette, a talented, artistic, flawed daughter of Holocaust survivors. As she explores her love of art (and the art of love) in Jerusalem in the 1970s, she records her findings in detailed letters to her sister, Lizzie, a wild, lovable and imaginative woman who lives in a psychiatric facility in California that she swears is actually the posh Grand Hotel du Mal. Broken hearts bind the two together; Bette’s ex-lover has a penchant for loving the ladies, while Lizzie’s husband yearns for men, dresses and a sex change operation. When the girls’ mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, Bette flies home to New York City, finally facing her family, its secrets and her repressed memories. Lizzie, however, doesn’t return home, and as Bette finally hits rock bottom, she begins to face the truth about her parents and her beloved sister. Holden’s characterizations of the Holocaust survivors and their children are remarkably lifelike, with detailed comments and dialogue (“I once slept with a soldier for a loaf of bread…he was handsome”) offering crystal-clear insight into their motivations. Moreover, the repercussions of the Nazi regime didn’t end with the war—they’ve continued for decades. Interestingly, Holden’s Jewish characters aren’t quite the stereotypical heroic survivors readers might be used to meeting in novels. Bette’s great grandmother ran a brothel, and her father, though he swam to freedom with a child strapped to his back, does not show Bette the same degree of compassion. After several surprising plot twists, Bette must make the crucial decision to either be buried by the past or reach for a brighter future.
Painfully truthful; a beautifully revealed examination of self-preservation.