The latest crop of Jewish fiction brings many novels with wartime characters and themes, as well as some lighter topics. Take a break from Passover preparations to enjoy a good book!
MINNA: Alan Hlad was with us for the ABC Festival in November to discuss his World War II novel, “Churchill’s Secret Messenger.” His newest novel, “A Light Beyond the Trenches,” is based on a true story set during World War I. Dr. Gerhard Stalling, a real historical figure, opened the first training school for guide dogs to help the blind in Oldenburg, Germany in 1916. This story pairs a German nurse, Anna Zeller, with a blind Jewish pianist, Max Benesch, who she sets out to help by working with Dr. Stalling to train Nia, an injured German shepherd, to be his guide dog. Complications stemming from anti-Semitism, Anna’s fiancé Bruno, and the horrors of warfare make this a gripping and emotionally affecting tale.
AMY: Another historical figure is featured in Anita Abriel’s “A Girl During the War,” set in Italy in 1943. Young Marina flees to Rome after learning that her father has been killed by Nazis because, as she learns, she ran the family home as a safe house. Marina then goes to Florence, to a villa owned by her father’s friend, Bernard Berenson. She becomes romantically involved with a partisan and she helps Berenson, who is trying to save valuable art from the Nazis by moving it to Switzerland. Historical details about the looting of art by Nazis, as well as the activities of Berenson, the American art historian, critic, and collector, and one of the leading experts on Italian Renaissance art, highlight this story. Readers will appreciate this suspenseful novel, with its descriptions of Italian art, and the variety of settings, including Argentina, where Marina travels later in the story.
AMY: Art figures prominently again in “Woman on Fire” by Lisa Barr. Protagonist Jules Roth has great admiration for journalist Dan Mansfield; wanting to learn from him, she joins her investigative team, searching for a painting called Woman on Fire on behalf of her client, leading fashion icon Ellis Baum. Baum never told of the horrific experiences during the war that brought him to America as a 13-year-old orphan. His mother of him was a beauty queen who posed for the famous painting, which has not been seen in 80 years. Standing in the way is Margaux de Laurent, a famous and villainous gallery owner. Descriptions of the worlds of Hitler’s art police as well as high fashion and priceless art enhance the suspenseful story.
MINNA: The short story collection “Loss of Memory is Only Temporary” by Johanna Kaplan contains pieces written in the 1960s and 1970s. Most were published in 1975 under the title “Other People’s Lives,” but this volume, with a new introduction by Francine Prose, is an expanded version. Set in postwar New York, with an assortment of young Jewish women from the Bronx as the main characters, these stories still feel relevant today. The title story, based on the author’s own experiences of her working as a special education teacher, references the effects of electroshock therapy. The author, born in 1942 and twice a finalist for the National Book Awards, is reportedly now working on a new novel.
AMY: Weina dai Randel’s “The Last Rose of Shanghai” is set in 1940. The Japanese occupy Shanghai, where Aiyi, a wealthy heiress and club owner, and Ernest, a poor Jewish refugee, cross paths. Aiyi hires Ernest to play piano in her club de ella, and romance follows, though Aiyi is engaged to another man. Ernest becomes famous, making the club a popular destination. As the war continues, Aiyi and Ernest face cultural barriers and a series of obstacles that threaten their romance. Shanghai is quite different from the usual settings for WWII fiction, making this a departure from standard historical fiction of that era.
MINNA: In Aimie Runyan’s “The School for German Brides,” Hanna Rombauer is sent to a Nazi school to make her a suitable wife for an SS officer. Horrified by the content of her lessons from her, she yearns to escape. Mathilde Altman, a pregnant young Jewish woman, separated from her family, her husband de ella, and her work de ella is desperate to protect her unborn baby. When Hanna finds Tilde hiding, their two destinies are intertwined as both struggle to survive.
MINNA: “Bad Luck Bridesmaid,” the debut novel by Alison Rose Greenberg, has already been optioned for a feature film. Our heroine, Zoey Marks, has an unfortunate claim to fame—over the past decade, she has been the bridesmaid at three weddings that never took place. Now her her best friend, Hannah, has invited her to make a fourth attempt. Complicating matters are Zoey’s feelings for her ex de ella, Rylan, who just happens to be Hannah’s cousin. How will this wedding weekend in Ireland turn out? And is marriage what these independent young women really want anyway?