Cayla’s Reading: “The Women in the Castle” by Jessica Shattuck

women in the castleI’m drawn to World War II fiction, particularly centered around women. Therefore, the premise of the widow of one of the men who plotted to assassinate Hitler gathering other Resistance widows in her family castle post-war was irresistible. After finishing, and pondering over this book for about a week, I am still of mixed emotions.

Marianne von Lingenfels is a formidable, complex character. She is passionately idealistic to the point of being unable to see the human complexities of the people she encounters. To Marianne, you are either a Nazi or you are not, there is no grey area. The other widows and children she manages to pluck out of the post-war DP camps are not quite as black and white. Fragile, romantic Benita burns with her own quiet strength, yearning for a life she’ll never have. Stoic Ania harbors secrets darker than anyone might imagine. Their children struggle for any resemblance of normal childhood after losing their fathers and living through the horrors of war.

The book starts in 1945 and then jumps forward to 1950, and then 1991, with several flashbacks to during and before the war. At first, I thought the author should have lingered in 1945 a bit longer. I was fascinated by life for the widows in the castle, learning to live with each other and find meaning in their new lives.

But as the book went on, I realized the book isn’t so much historical fiction as it is a study in psychology and how each person handles tragedy. The plot in itself doesn’t really matter. It was, of course, an interesting look at post-war Germany, a perspective we don’t often get in fiction. We got to see insight into how German society put itself back together after such a terrible and divisive war. But it really is about the characters. Some find purpose and passion in reconstructing Germany. Some struggle to adapt, some try to forget, and some are trapped in regret and pain and cannot move on at all.

We also got to see how each of the grown children handled their lives after the war. Some want nothing to do with their histories, some study it, and all struggle with relationships and connections. Seeing each character at each point in time was really a remarkable study in human psychology. The events in the book didn’t feel like a nicely arranged plot, either. I actually had to check if they were based in reality, they had that certain random quality that made me think it had to be partly true. It turns out, the only true part is the assassination plot against Hitler. But, Shattuck is half-German and based a lot of the emotional content on her grandparents’ experience during the war.

All in all, I think I liked it, but it isn’t an easy book to read or to digest!

–Cayla

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Marie’s Reading: “Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots” by Jessica Soffer

3.BookApricotsHeather, our archivist at the library, put me on to this one.  I’m glad I took her suggestion!

Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer tells the story of Lorca, the emotionally neglected daughter of a chef, and Victoria, an Iraqi Jewish widow who used to own a restaurant.  Told in alternating chapters from both of their points of view, we uncover their secrets, desires, and fears as they come together to cook, and then as their relationship evolves into something much deeper.

This is a densely written novel with beautiful imagery.  The characters are heartbreakingly three-dimensional, and their relationships are complex.  Soffer’s depictions of love and grief are beautifully rendered.   Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is a novel which relies on its characters, so definitely give this one a try if you enjoy character-driven literary fiction.  The descriptions are gorgeous, too–you can see the apartment, feel the floor beneath your feet, and, most important, smell and taste the food.

Food is how characters relate to one another in this novel.   A dish called masgouf (the national dish of Iraq) is very nearly a character on its own.  All those who love food, cooking, and the way it brings people together will enjoy that part of this novel.

Joanne Harris might be a good readalike for those who enjoyed this book (and vice versa–if you already like Joanne Harris you might like Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots).  Try Chocolat or Five Quarters of the Orange.  Both employ themes of food and family, and Harris has a dense and rewarding writing style.  Five Quarters of the Orange also deals with the complex relationship between mothers and daughters.   Khaled Hosseini might also be a good readalike choice–he has an eloquent style, and Afghanistan is vividly rendered.  His ability to provide a sense of place is wonderful, and his characters and their relationships are very well-drawn.  Try And the Mountains Echoed, his sweeping multi-generational story that follows a family and explores the ties that bind them together.  Though be warned Hosseini’s books contain more violence than these other suggestions.

Last, I’d suggest Muriel Barbery’s lovely novels as readalikes.  If the relationship between Violet and Lorca was your favorite part of Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, you might like the friendship that springs up between Renee and Paloma in The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  And if the food talk was what you responded to, try Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody, about a dying food critic trying to capture the memory of the perfect taste.

–Marie