Thursday, April 6, 2017

Book Review: "The Women in the Castle" by Jessica Shattuck

The Women in the Castle Jessica Shattuck
Date Finished: March 23, 2017
Date Published: March 28, 2017
ISBN: 9780062563668
Genre: Historical Fiction (20th Century Europe)
Source: TLC Book Tours and HarperCollins Publishers
Highly Recommended

You might enjoy this book if you like: Stories set during World War II, stories about non-Nazi Germans, novels with strong female characters

Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once grand castle of her husband’s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resistor murdered in the failed July, 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows. 

First, Marianne rescues six-year-old Martin, the son of her dearest childhood friend, from a Nazi reeducation home. Together, they make their way across the smoldering wreckage of their homeland to Berlin, where Martin’s mother, the beautiful and naïve Benita, has fallen into the hands of occupying Red Army soldiers. Then she locates Ania, another resistor’s wife, and her two boys, now refugees languishing in one of the many camps that house the millions displaced by the war. 

As Marianne assembles this makeshift family from the ruins of her husband’s resistance movement, she is certain their shared pain and circumstances will hold them together. But she quickly discovers that the black-and-white, highly principled world of her privileged past has become infinitely more complicated, filled with secrets and dark passions that threaten to tear them apart. Eventually, all three women must come to terms with the choices that have defined their lives before, during, and after the war—each with their own unique share of challenges. 

My Thoughts:
I keep saying that I'm going to take a break with the World War II novels, and I keep finding myself back there.  I will say that, these days, the WWI tends to be more of an emotional minefield for me than it has been in the past, which I think makes the experience of reading a book set in this time period both more fraught and more fulfilling.

This book, however, separates itself in two ways.  First of all, a good chunk of the book--at least half--is set after World War II, mainly in 1950's Germany and later.  I know that there are other books set in this period, but I haven't read them.  We also get glimpses into what the characters suffered during the war and what their lives were before the war.  I think these different views give a much more complete view of lives of Germans in the first part of the 20th century than we usually see in World War II based novels.

The other difference is that these characters have a very specific place in history.  They are the widows of men who were executed after a failed plot to assassinate Hitler.  While the women's involvement in the resistance varies from character to character, it was a fascinating aspect of history about which I knew little.

However, what I enjoyed most about this book were the relationships between the women.  This is not a gal-pal book and the webs between the three main characters are twisted and knotted.  But it is also a very realistic view of how people, in this case women, relate to one another in times of stress and upheaval.  There is nothing "neat" about this, and that is what makes it so fascinating.

All three characters were well-rounded and multi-dimensional.  I found myself enjoying and relating to Marianne the most, although I'm not entirely sure that was Shattuck's intention.  She's a very complicated character--as the one who brings Benita and Ania under her care, she's the glue that holds the characters and the narrative together.  Yet, she is still a flawed and thoroughly-human character.  While I didn't always agree with her decisions, I did understand them.  That is a very small target for an author to hit, and Shattuck did so with ease.

Among the World War II-era books that I've read, I would say that this ranks near the top, if not at the top.  I appreciated the unique view that Shattuck brought and found her portrayal of female relationships (friendships and otherwise) to be among the best.  This is a book that I would readily recommend to anyone.

About the Author:
Jessica Shattuck is the award-winning author of The Hazards of Good Breeding, which was a New York Times Notable Book and finalist for the PEN/Winship Award, and Perfect Life. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, New Yorker, Glamour, Mother Jones, Wired, and The Believer, among other publications. A graduate of Harvard University, she received her MFA from Columbia University. She lives with her husband and three children in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Find out more about Jessica at her website and connect with her on Facebook.

I received a copy of this book in return for an honest review  I received no other compensation for this post.

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