Joseph’s debut novel tells the story of an elderly couple seeking closure on the tragedies of their lives.
On New York’s Long Island in 1996, Holocaust survivors Eva and Max Stern are about to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. They want to get their entire extended family together, including their granddaughter, Amber; their estranged daughter, Beth; and their Israeli relative Ilan Stern, who’s just moved to America to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They even post advertisements in various countries throughout Europe in the hopes of tracking down any surviving relatives. The action then flashes back to Hungary in the 1940s, where Eva, 17 and pregnant, goes into hiding and gives birth before she’s separated from her child and sent to Auschwitz. Meanwhile, Max, a violinist whose dreams were shattered by anti-Semitism, ends up in the same camp with his family. He’s soon left with only his cousin, Sam, with whom he makes a survival pact. Max and Eva manage to survive the war, and they later meet in a displaced-persons camp, marry, and immigrate to America, where they struggle to build a new life together after losing almost everything. Back in 1996, as the loose ends of the couple’s lives are tied up, can they regain what they thought was lost? Joseph’s prose is measured and expressive, as when the Sterns receive their first introduction to New York, “where people laughed at perplexing jokes…..Where left-over food was tossed thoughtlessly into garbage cans, and lights burned twenty-four hours in tall buildings, even at night when people slept.” The book straddles several genres—it’s a novel of the Holocaust and of the immigrant experience, as well as a family saga—but it manages to feel intimate and contained, despite its length. The execution is uneven at times, however. Specifically, the story might have benefited from more character interiority; readers may sometimes feel as if they’re watching Eva, Max, and the others moving around on a set, instead of experiencing the characters’ emotional lives as they live them. Still, the narrative remains compelling enough to keep readers turning pages.
An earnest and often engaging story about loss and family.