In this debut novel, set in a small town in Vichy France on the Swiss border, World War II arrives at the back door of a wealthy 41-year-old widow, causing her to risk everything in the battle against unspeakable evil.
It is 1941, and the Germans have occupied northern France. But in the southern, “free” region, the Vichy government is still in control, albeit through collaboration with the Nazis. Almost two years ago, a skiing accident took the life of Madame Ingrid Fellner’s husband and left their daughter, Marta, seriously injured. Grief over her husband and devotion to her 8-year-old daughter’s recuperation have allowed Ingrid to distance herself from the chaos enveloping Europe. But as the book opens, she walks by the river that borders her property and makes a discovery that shakes her out of her complacency: “Oh Mon Dieu! There is one, no, there are two yellow stars, two people. A Jewish couple has washed up on my shore!” It is the pivotal moment that will lead Ingrid to join the French Resistance, a decision that will cost her more than she can imagine—her self-respect, her standing in the community, and perhaps her life. She agrees to let the underground use her basement as a way station for Jewish refugees, some of whom have escaped from concentration camps. While Ingrid entertains the regional head of the Gestapo, Erich Heisler, upstairs in her drawing room, becoming his “field mattress” to keep him distracted, the “Old Testaments” are hiding downstairs.
The riveting first-person narrative is written in Ingrid’s voice. It is a voice outwardly enriched by her aristocratic upbringing and inwardly full of self-doubt and anguish. The novel, the first installment of a series, is simultaneously character-driven and rich in historical details about the operation of one aspect of the underground’s activities. Libby paints a vivid portrait of the competing forces that turn friend against friend, ripping off the veneer of civility even as they lead to new, deep bonds of trust and love that cross traditional societal lines. Ingrid is living with two identities: she is Madame Fellner in public but is known as the mysterious Madame “Henri” within the underground, literally traversing from one world to the other each time she descends or ascends the back staircase to her basement: “I spend my days paranoid and obsessed with questions. I torture myself worrying about every detail that could reveal what I do secretly and then give up because it’s too much to carry.” With the increasing deceptions, Ingrid’s closest confidants are her mentor (and local underground leader), Dieter Van der Kreuzier; her butler, Guy; and her housekeeper, Marie. They also are among this impressive book’s most significant secondary characters. A dark back story, which first appears as an intriguing subplot, takes on greater importance as the primary narrative moves forward, weaving together the threads of war and revenge.
Smooth, in-the-moment prose and realistic dialogue enliven a haunting tale tightly packed with historical facts that should alarm readers even today, seven decades later.