The talented Maristed (Out After Dark, 1993, etc.) stumbles with a plodding third novel set against the changing face of 20th-century Berlin.
Kaethe is summoned to Germany by her worried ex-husband, Count Achim von Thall, when their 22-year-old daughter Sophie disappears. Convinced that Sophie is living somewhere in Berlin, Kaethe takes up residence at a pension and begins her long search while she reconsiders her own guilty past. The daughter of American soldier Max Schalk and a German war bride, Kaethe grew up in the States under the care of her alcoholic mother and paternal grandparents, dreaming of the mysterious father who stayed in Germany after the war. Max, living in East Berlin as a committed communist and party insider, summons teenaged Kaethe, who goes to live with him more as a pupil than a daughter. Though the wall goes up, the daughter of Max Schalk and holder of an American passport can cross Checkpoint Charlie at will. Kaethe marries in West Berlin, but when Countess von Thall crosses over to the East to visit Max, she files reports for him like a good communist. The von Thalls are a popular couple in left-wing 1960s West Berlin, and soon Achim (who prefers the more proletarian “Joe”) develops political aspirations. Sophie is born into an already disintegrating marriage; a nasty divorce and custody battle leave Kaethe with little choice but to return to East Berlin alone, where she is employed as a translator and low-level informant. She’s been back in the States for six years as the novel begins, and reunified Berlin seems a city of ghosts. Kaethe starts to see things, including a young street woman with rats crawling in and out of her disheveled hair who looks like her daughter. Maristed paints a fascinating portrait of Berlin then and now, but the protracted search for Sophie seems more a delivery device for Kaethe’s tale than an authentic concern of the story.
Fine prose can’t make up for poor pacing and a disjointed plot objective.