Tuesday, April 26, 2016

LILAC GIRLS by Martha Hall Kelly ✮✮✮✮✮

First of all, let me say that I was one of the few reviewers who took the less traveled road when it came to The Nightingale—I found very little of merit with that novel. When I saw in pre-publication literature that this debut was being touted as the next Nightingale, I almost didn’t read it. However, I had already requested and was granted a copy, so in deference to the kindness of the publisher, I felt honor bound to give it a go. What a wonderful surprise!
I devoured this book in less than two days, with a migraine, no less (a state which sometimes causes me to dislike books rather unjustly). Whenever I am a bit late on reviews for publishers, as I am with this one, I read reviews already posted and try to respond to the biggest criticisms of those reviews. I was very surprised to see that a couple of reviewers said that they found the pace of the book slow. I couldn’t disagree more; I found the novel impossible to put down and was completely drawn in by all three narrators: Caroline, the American working to help orphans and women in war-torn France; Kasia, a teenage Polish girl struggling to survive and stand for what she believed in, even while interned in a concentration camp; and Herta, a German woman fighting for a place as a doctor in a society not inclined to accept women in that role.

Another criticism of the book dealt with characterization, saying the the main women were cardboard. Again, I couldn’t disagree more! One of my biggest complaints about The Nightingale was that the characters all felt like they were drawn from a pool of stock personalities with very little to differentiate them. Lilac Girls was a completely different story. Some critics dislike the trend towards using multiple narrators, but in this case, I felt it was the perfect device. We entered the lives of three very different women and having the benefit of their innermost thoughts was pivotal to the emotional connection the author built with her readers.

Readers are often not fond of characters that are portrayed as evil, with very few redeeming qualities, but the character of Herta, a German doctor who takes a position at the all women’s concentration camp, Ravensbrück—and perpetrates some heinous acts—was a necessary foil in this novel. Her character, who clearly had as her number one aim to succeed in a man’s world, shows just enough hesitation to make her believable and human.

Some reviewers said that they just didn’t care about Caroline and all her society whirl and love woes. Again, I found her a perfect foil to Herta’s selfish drive and Kasia’s dire circumstances working for the resistance and then as an inmate at Ravensbrück. While she definitely had it far easier than the other two living in war ravaged Europe, the very decadence of her life illustrated the huge dichotomy that existed between the lives of the three women.

One of my biggest surprises came in the form of a criticism leveled by one reviewer who said she would have given the novel a strong four stars but dropped her rating to two based on the author’s note at the end of the book. Really? The author’s note was one of the finest I have read in a work of historical fiction. Ms. Kelly laid out exactly how she set about her research, detailed which characters were of her own imagining and which were pulled from history, and offered for her reader which aspects of the story (including dialogue) were pulled from primary source documents. What the other reviewer disliked was the fact that the author gave her strong and sympathetic lead, Caroline, a romance which did not exist in real life. Ms. Kelly explains that she built the relationship as a vehicle to build more of an emotional connection, as opposed to just the philanthropic one, between Caroline and the people of Europe. I felt that her aim was brilliantly achieved and appreciated her forthright explanation. The book is, after all, historical fiction and not a biography of the real Caroline Ferriday.

In addition to making great use of her research in building her characters, Ms. Kelly also wove through her tale, using a wonderfully light hand, countless details that vividly brought to life what it was like to live in that time and place. I have read a lot of historical fiction from the era and grew up in Germany, but I learned a great deal from her building of time and place. While Ms. Kelly’s writing is simple in style and is not very heavy on adjectives and adverbs (Stephen King would approve), she uses strong verbs and nouns to convey a world of meaning. I tend to be a lover of the ponderous and profound, but her clean style really worked for her subject matter.

Overall, there was nothing about this book that I wished were different. Not something I can say about very many books. Even though the book clocks in at just under 500 pages, I wouldn’t edit out a thing. My only caution might be to those who have a strong emotional connection to the events which occurred in concentration camps. The portrayal is very frank and very difficult to read at times. My thanks to Random House for the opportunity to read this gem of a debut which I recommend without reservation to all readers of historical fiction and World War II aficionados.