Amid one of the 20th century’s most turbulent periods, a Polish Jew finds herself.
Smoller’s impressive debut begins in the remote Polish village of Zarki in 1918 and ends many lifetimes and a world away in 1941 New York City. The protagonist, 18-year-old Rachel Jonish, the ravishing beauty and ambitious daughter of one of the most successful businessmen in town, finds herself hemmed in by the constancy of village life and convinces her parents to let her move to the metropolis of Czestochowa; there she meets Aleksander Mischler, a gifted and provocative political journalist she pursues and eventually marries. The two soon move to Warsaw, where they have a daughter, and Aleks attains a prominent position with the Ministry of the Interior. But Rachel soon finds her role as mother and politico’s wife to be confining, so when she encounters Roman, a shrewd businessman on the make in London, she enters into a passionate affair with him and ponders leaving Aleks until a sudden change of heart propels her back to Warsaw as thousands of German refugees flood Poland to escape Hitler. Says Rachel, â€œLife is so much more difficult if you have to choose,” and the Mischler family soon learns just how difficult when Germany invades on Sept. 1, 1939, and they are forced to flee to Russia, Japan and eventually America, while leaving some beloved family members and friends behind to face Hitler’s merciless exterminating forces. Though safe in America, Rachel’s fractured sense of self gains new resolve as she attempts to make her way as a businesswoman in New York City: â€œ â€˜What are we, Aleks?’ she said angrily. â€˜Poles, Jews, Americans? We’re a little of everything and we’re nothing. We’re refugees. Well, I’m going to stop being a refugee.’ ”
Smoller’s detailed, engaging portrait of both the period and Rachel’s emotional maturation aptly demonstrates how extreme forces can mold–even fortify–a life.