Review: Love & Treasure, by Ayelet Waldman

About the book, Love & Treasure Love & Treasure

Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Knopf (April 1, 2014)

A spellbinding new novel of contraband masterpieces, tragic love, and the unexpected legacies of forgotten crimes, Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Treasure weaves a tale around the fascinating, true history of the Hungarian Gold Train in the Second World War.

In 1945 on the outskirts of Salzburg, victorious American soldiers capture a train filled with unspeakable riches: piles of fine gold watches; mountains of fur coats; crates filled with wedding rings, silver picture frames, family heirlooms, and Shabbat candlesticks passed down through generations. Jack Wiseman, a tough, smart New York Jew, is the lieutenant charged with guarding this treasure—a responsibility that grows more complicated when he meets Ilona, a fierce, beautiful Hungarian who has lost everything in the ravages of the Holocaust. Seventy years later, amid the shadowy world of art dealers who profit off the sins of previous generations, Jack gives a necklace to his granddaughter, Natalie Stein, and charges her with searching for an unknown woman—a woman whose portrait and fate come to haunt Natalie, a woman whose secret may help Natalie to understand the guilt her grandfather will take to his grave and to find a way out of the mess she has made of her own life.

A story of brilliantly drawn characters—a suave and shady art historian, a delusive and infatuated Freudian, a family of singing circus dwarfs fallen into the clutches of Josef Mengele, and desperate lovers facing choices that will tear them apart—Love and Treasure is Ayelet Waldman’s finest novel to date: a sad, funny, richly detailed work that poses hard questions about the value of precious things in a time when life itself has no value, and about the slenderest of chains that can bind us to the griefs and passions of the past.

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About the author, Ayelet Waldman Ayelet Waldman

Ayelet Waldman is the author of the recently released Love and Treasure (Knopf, April 2014), Red Hook Road and The New York Times bestseller Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace. Her novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits was adapted into a film called “The Other Woman” starring Natalie Portman. Her personal essays and profiles of such public figures as Hillary Clinton have been published in a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Vogue, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Her radio commentaries have appeared on “All Things Considered” and “The California Report.” Her books are published throughout the world, in countries as disparate as England and Thailand, the Netherlands and China, Russia and Israel, South Korea and Italy.

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My Thoughts

You wouldn’t think that a novel that spends fully half it’s pages dealing with the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust could be magical and amazing, but Ayelet Waldman’s Love & Treasure manages to be so.

To be clear, those magical moments come between a lot of candid, even gritty, scenes. The first half of the book is the story of Jack Wiseman, an ethnic Jew and American soldier, in Europe at the end of World War II. Largely due to circumstance he is put in charge of a warehouse which holds the contents of a train, which, in turn, was full of the stolen, stripped down belongings – everything from ceramics to jewelry to bed linens to art – of Hungarian Jews who were either sent to concentration camps or sent to forced labor camps by the Nazis.

The second half of the book is mostly the story of Jack’s granddaughter Natalie, and her quest to fulfill her grandfather’s dying wish: track down the owner of a necklace he took from the warehouse, and return it. To do this, she travels to Europe and Israel, hooking up with an art dealer named Amitai who operates just at the surface, or maybe slightly below, the law. He isn’t a bad person, but he doesn’t make high-percentage choices. Also, he’s not that interested in the necklace – he’s trying to track down a painting done by the same artist. (He is, however, increasingly interested in Natalie.)

The problem is that Natalie’s story, which I referred to as the second ‘half,’ ends in such a way that it feels like an ending, but there’s a third part of the story, the history of the necklace’s original owner.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved learning the story of the necklace, loved a glimpse into early twentieth century feminism in Europe, it just felt like the novel would have been even more magical and amazing than it already is if Jack had been part one, Natalie had been part two, and the rest had been woven through in bits and glimpses.

But that’s me, who sometimes likes books to be ideally structured even though life never actually is, and the reality is that this minor structural issue didn’t detract from the story in any way. Jack’s section is heartbreaking, Natalie’s is a grand adventure, and all the rest? Quiet magic and amazing history.

Is this a beach read? Maybe not.
But it’s a great book for a lazy summer Sunday.

Goes well with: Organic eggs scrambled with spinach, salmon and cream cheese, a toasted bagel with butter, and a few chunks of really ripe cantaloupe.

TLC Book Tours

This review is part of a blog tour sponsored by TLC Book Tours. For more information, and the complete list of tour stops, click HERE.

Review: The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein

About the book, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment

One summer night in prewar Japan, eleven-year-old Billy Reynolds takes snapshots at his parent’s dinner party. That same evening his father Anton–a prominent American architect–begins a torrid affair with the wife of his master carpenter. A world away in New York, Cameron Richards rides a Ferris Wheel with his sweetheart and dreams about flying a plane. Though seemingly disparate moments, they will all draw together to shape the fate of a young girl caught in the midst of one of WWII’s most horrific events–the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo.

Exquisitely-rendered, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment tells the stories of families on both sides of the Pacific: their loves and infidelities, their dreams and losses–and their shared connection to one of the most devastating acts of war in human history.

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About the author, Jennifer Cody Epstein

Jennifer Cody Epstein

Jennifer Cody Epstein is the author of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment and the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, Self, Mademoiselle and NBC, and has worked in Hong Kong, Japan and Bangkok, Thailand.

Jennifer lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, two daughters and especially needy Springer Spaniel.

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My Thoughts

While I’m not typically a fan of historical fiction, I make exceptions for recent history. The recent acquisition of a scrapbook my grandfather made when he was stationed in Hawaii in the 1930s had sparked my interest in the period just before and during World War II, and when I was offered The Gods of Heavenly Punishment to read and review, it seemed like a sign, especially since so much of the literature about that period is so Eurocentric.

This book, however, is a refreshing change from the usual, both because of the subject, and because it tells such an earthy, gritty, human story. We meet three boys in different parts of the world, and we revisit them during their lives, as tragedy occurs, finally saying goodbye to the last of them as a grown man.

We meet the girls and women who dance in and out of the boys’ lives, and they are as dimensional, as fully-realized as any lead characters in any work, despite not being on ‘center stage.

Even though we know the bare facts of history, there are thousands of stories, some separate, some interconnected, and Epstein weaves her fiction into the historical context with deftness and grace. From the opening chapters – a boy kissing a girl on a Ferris wheel, another boy snapping pictures with his brand new camera – to the closing ones – a man confronting the truth of his fathers actions toward another, a woman seeing treasured photos of her parents – we are treated to beautiful human moments that pull us away from the brutal atrocities of war.

I won’t pretend that some aspects of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment aren’t difficult. They are, and they should be. War isn’t clean and pretty. War stories shouldn’t be either.

But the book is still hauntingly beautiful and achingly poignant, and I found myself emerging from it with a deeper sense of history.

TLC Book Tours

This review is part of a virtual book tour. For more information, visit the tour page by clicking here.