Moore (The Big Girls, 2007, etc.) focuses a narrow flashlight on World War II, specifically the daily struggles of an aristocratic couple that remains in Germany despite abhorring the Third Reich.
In 1938 County Mayo, bookish 18-year-old Beatrice is desperate to escape her humdrum life. So she is thrilled when a visiting German countess, impressed by Beatrice’s lace work, offers to take her to Berlin as a lace maker for the fabulously wealthy Metzenburgs. Countess Inéz is unaware that the German government, angry with Felix Metzenburg for refusing an ambassadorship, has requisitioned the Metzenburgs’ elegant home. Soon, they decamp to their rural estate with their fabulous collection of art and objects in tow, along with Beatrice and a couple of their most loyal retainers. For the next seven years, Beatrice bears witness as the Metzenburgs attempt a life of grace despite the war. At first, it is hard to tell whether Felix is a man of scruples or just “exquisite taste” and extremely good manners. But details accrue: his protection of the Jewish intellectual who teaches German to a smitten Beatrice, the odd mix of guests who pass through, the treasures he hides for friends and those he trades for food, the refugees he takes in. By the time conquering Soviets take Felix away for questioning, he has become a saintly figure in Beatrice’s eyes. Meanwhile, Felix’s devoted wife, Dorothea, whose Jewish heritage is an open secret, becomes a tough survivor, as does Beatrice herself. And then there’s Inéz, captivating but elusive. Actually Cuban (and Felix’s former lover), she divorces her German count for an Egyptian prince but continues to flitter in and out of Germany. Maddeningly selfish and superficial but surprisingly generous, she leaves Beatrice wondering, is she WWII-era Eurotrash or a skillful spy?
Moore’s subject is rectitude. Even when the subject matter is graphically horrendous, the narration remains as reserved and understated as the Metzenburgs, who prefer not to reveal how deeply they feel, how willingly they sacrifice, how daringly they risk.