Right off, let me say I enjoyed this book. I think the title is unfortunate, though, as it has a whiff of chick lit. It is so much more than that. The story is haunting and has a different approach to the aftermath of war. Being World War II Germany, there is guilt, depravation, and survival. Besides, it is an interesting plot with secrets and their consequences.
The story opens in 1938, the threshold of the war, when Hitler is wildly and widely popular, seen as one who will make Germany great again. Marianne and Albrecht von Lingenfel are giving a party, which turns out to be a cover for Albrecht and a group of like-minded men who are plotting in a back room to assassinate Hitler. Among the men is Martin “Connie” Fledermann a childhood friend of Maryianne (one whom she is most likely in love with). Connie asks Marianne to be sure to take care of the the wives and children of the plotters should things go wrong, as indeed they did. The plot failed and the men were put to death. (This part of the book is based on a true incident).
The main part of the story takes place after the war in 1945, when Marianne, still living in the largely boarded up and abandoned castle, begins a search and rescue mission for the missing wives. She finds Connie’s wife, Benita and then her son who had been placed in an orphanage. Benita had been living in Berlin and badly used by the invading Russians. Marianne brings them, badly shocked, back to Bavaria where they attempt to begin a life with her. Around the same time, the Americans who were trying to repatriate large groups of displaced German prisoners asked Marianne to take in Ania and her two sons, who had barely survived a German prisoner-of-war camp. Post war times were rough for the survivors and Marianne, with her strong personality, kept everyone going. They eked out subsistence through bartering and gardening. Marianne was rigid and strong and ran a tight ship. Benita was beautiful, apolitical, and soft-hearted without survival skills. Ania was resourceful and practical who as a youth had been under the spell of Hitler’s propaganda. The secrets and trauma each character suffered are revealed as the book develops and serve to move the plot along.
The book is more than just a story of the survival of three women and their children. It is a story of how ordinary Germans handled the war and its aftermath of guilt and confusion. Shattuck’s characters illustrate individual responses to the horror of Hitler’s Germany. The writing is excellent and the reader becomes caught up in the story of these women and their children who mature and move on to their own futures.
I highly recommend this book to all readers for its fine writing, interesting characters, and different look at the aftermath of war.