Published: August 2012 by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
Audio: Penguin Group
Source: Thanks, JoAnn of Lakeside Musing, who sent me her audiobook
It is 1943—the height of the Second World War. With the men taken by the army, Berlin has become a city of women. And while her husband fights on the Eastern Front, Sigrid Schröder is, for all intents and purposes, the model soldier’s wife: She goes to work every day, does as much with her rations as she can, and dutifully cares for her meddling mother-in-law, all the while ignoring the horrific immoralities of the regime.
But behind this façade is an entirely different Sigrid, a woman who dreams of her former Jewish lover, who is now lost in the chaos of the war.
Sigrid’s tedious existence is turned upside down when she finds herself hiding a mother and her two young daughters—whom she believes might be her lover’s family—and she must make terrifying choices that could cost her everything.
If you follow me on Twitter, you may already be tired of hearing my thoughts about this book. At least once a day I tweeted about how amazing this book is. I'm not sure yet which impressed me more, Gillham's writing or Suzanne Bertish's narration (perhaps the best I have ever heard). In theory, I'd wait to write this review until I could be less gushy, but I don't see that happening any time soon so gushy is what you'll get.
Sigrid is liberated, modern woman who has settled into a life that doesn't satisfy her. With war raging, Sigrid is also a woman who has stuck her head in the sand, finding it easier to ignore what is really happening around her, and safer.
“You avert your eyes enough times and you finally go blind.”When Sigrid finds herself drawn into a friendship with Ericha, a duty year girl helping a neighbor in Sigrid's building, she also finds herself being challenged and her eyes being opened, not only to what is happening around her but to the true nature of the people in her life.
I'm always hesitant to read books about women written by men. It so often doesn't work. From the beginning, it was obvious that Gillham knows how to make it work. In a book filled with women, not one of them feels like a stereotype or one-dimensional. Sigrid's mother-in-law, for example, is a woman who does not, in the least, like her daughter-in-law and who worships her son. She so easily could simply have been a woman readers are meant to dislike and nothing more. But in Gillham's skilled hands, she is also a woman who is terribly lonely and desperate to hold on to the only family she has left, eliciting a measure of sympathy.
The book is not a train speeding to the final stop; it is a slow ride back and forth in time as Gillham builds up his characters and the tension in the book. At disc nine, I was tempted to drive a few miles out of my way so that I could keep listening and I couldn't wait to leave for work the next morning so I could start listening again. At disc eleven, I found myself incredibly sad to be at the end of this mesmerizing book. And that was before I knew that I was going to cry for the last twenty minutes of the book.
I would highly recommend this book with the proviso that it is not for everyone. There are some very graphic sex scenes and some very blunt language which may offend some readers. There is a lot here for book clubs to talk about: love, trust, morality, family, and patriotism.