Friday, May 20, 2016

Review: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Title: Lilac Girls: A Novel
Author: Martha Hall Kelly
Publisher:  Ballantine Books (April 5, 2016)
ISBN: 9781101883075
Pages: 496 pages
How I Read It: eARC
Genre: historical fiction
My Rating: 3 cups

Inspired by the life of a real World War II heroine, this powerful debut novel reveals an incredible story of love, redemption, and terrible secrets that were hidden for decades.

On the eve of a fateful war, New York socialite Caroline Ferriday has her hands full with her post at the French consulate and a new love on the horizon. But Caroline's world is forever changed when Hitler's army invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France.

An ocean away from Caroline, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, senses her carefree youth disappearing as she sinks deeper into her role as courier for the underground resistance movement. In a tense atmosphere of watchful eyes and suspect neighbors, one false move can have dire consequences.

For ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, an ad for a government medical position seems her ticket out of a desolate life. But, once hired, she finds herself trapped in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power.

The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious female-only Nazi concentration camp. The tragedy and triumph of their stories cross continents—from New York to Paris, and Germany to Poland—capturing the indomitable pull of compassion to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten.

In Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly has crafted a remarkable novel of unsung women and their quest for love, happiness, and second chances. It is a story that will keep readers bonded with the characters, searching for the truth, until the final pages.

My Thoughts:

This is an ambitious debut novel, and I found it to be a good read but not a great one. Not an easy one either - but that's no surprise given the subject matter. Tales surrounding the Holocaust are seldom "light" reading, and much of the story here is quite grim and disturbing.

This book spans many years, beginning in the lead up to WWII and continuing well into its aftermath. It is a challenging tale to tell and no small task managing such a long timeline. This author does so with varying success, occasionally skipping over quite large periods of time which can give the writing a choppy feel. As the synopsis states, the story is told from the perspectives of three very different women: Caroline, an American socialite and philanthropist; Kasia, a Polish teenager and member of the Resistance; and Herta, a German physician and Nazi camp surgeon. Caroline and Herta were real people, while Kasia is a fictional character inspired by actual prisoners. Kudos to the author for attempting to represent Herta's viewpoint, which surely must have been a difficult perspective to envision and write. I'm not convinced she was entirely successful with this, but I do respect her effort in taking on such an unsympathetic and unrelatable character.

Much of the story centers around Ravensbrück, Hilter's only exclusively female concentration camp, where Kasia is eventually imprisoned and becomes one of the so-called "Ravensbrück Rabbits" - subjects of the horrific and torturous sulfonamide experiments performed at the camp by Nazi doctors, including Herta Oberheuser. Kasia's story is by far the most compelling, but be forewarned, the reading can be difficult and overwhelming, as Kelly does not shy away from the horrors and desperation of camp life and paints a vivid but harrowing picture. Interspersed chapters describing Caroline's work in New York at the French consulate, while not the most interesting, do help to temper the tale somewhat, but I still found myself having to set this book aside at times to take a break from the more grueling parts of the story.

The Author's Note at the end of the book is a highlight and well worth reading. It is full of additional information that sent me scouring the internet for more accounts of the actual events and people. Caroline Ferriday was a true hero in championing the cause of the "Rabbits" and bringing them to the States for medical treatment after the war. Unfortunately, she doesn't come across as quite so interesting in this book. Like several other reviewers, I found the fabricated romantic relationship between her and Paul Rodierre to be unnecessary and distracting. It seemed to serve little purpose other than to help introduce further effects of the war throughout Europe via the French storyline, and frankly, it became a bit of "information overload." In this and many aspects I feel the author simply tried to include too much and needed a more focused approach.

A little more selectivity in the storytelling may have evened things out and resulted in a better book, because I believe more time could have been spent shining a light on the courage shown by the imprisoned women in the face of the atrocities they endured. This aspect is touched on, to a point, but in my opinion is outweighed by their victimization and is not showcased enough. For these women truly were incredibly brave - helping each other, protecting and hiding the "Rabbits", secretly getting the story of their abuses out, staging a near mutiny in protest of those abuses. Theirs is a story worth telling, and they deserve to have their strength remembered just as much as their suffering, if not more.

"But it's fitting in a way...a lilac only blossoms after a harsh winter."

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

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