In early 1930s Berlin, with Nazism on the rise, self-possessed 14-year-old Sophie Riedesel joins her kindly Jewish neighbor, Mr. Zarco, in a secret resistance group known as the Ring. When the group's leader is murdered, Sophie dedicates herself to solving the crime, even as her father and boyfriend are signing up with the Nazis.
Zimler, a seasoned American writer living in Portugal, combines sexy coming-of-age adventures with coming-of-Hitler terrors in this powerfully understated saga. A sheltered gentile girl who had never met anyone who disliked Jews until recently, Sophie now is exposed to the anti-Semitic spoutings of her father, a spineless Communist engineer who will try to beat her Jewish sympathies out of her. Generations ahead of her time, she is a self-aware girl whose sexual experimentation with her boyfriend, Tonio, is as much an expression of individuality as a pursuit of pleasure. In addition to Zarco, who teaches her from the kabbalah and generally wins her over to a life of religion, Sophie befriends an odd physical specimen named Vera, who suffers from gigantism. The book depicts the Nazis' brutal treatment of people with physical imperfections or the potential to pass them on to their children. Haunted by the loss of her tragically fated little brother, and now pregnant, Sophie eventually escapes to such distant places as Portugal (site of the massacre of Jews Zimler wrote about in The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, 1998) and Turkey. The book telescopes forward to the present, where Sophie narrates its events to her nephew, who has always thought she was Jewish. In the end, she is the best kind of survivor, a thoughtful and likable one with lessons to share.
Adult fiction that counts on readers' ability to draw meaning from cultural signposts such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Greta Garbo and The Magic Mountain. But its plucky heroine gives it young adult appeal as well.