28 March 2017
The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
Set at the end of World War II, in a crumbling Bavarian castle that once played host to all of German high society, a powerful and propulsive story of three widows whose lives and fates become intertwined—an affecting, shocking, and ultimately redemptive novel from the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Hazards of Good Breeding
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.
Written with the devastating emotional power of The Nightingale, Sarah’s Key, and The Light Between Oceans, Jessica Shattuck’s evocative and utterly enthralling novel offers a fresh perspective on one of the most tumultuous periods in history. Combining piercing social insight and vivid historical atmosphere, The Women in the Castle is a dramatic yet nuanced portrait of war and its repercussions that explores what it means to survive, love, and, ultimately, to forgive in the wake of unimaginable hardship.
By my count, novels about non-combatants in World War II seem to be on a trend. It's not a particular corner of fiction I gravitate toward, possibly because I'm reasonably well-read on the non-fiction side. But I had an opportunity to read an advance copy of The Women in the Castle, so decided to give it a try.
I think that a reader who finds books like All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale to be their jam would also like The Women in the Castle. The writing is very good, the characters are compelling, and Shattuck has done a lot of research into the psychology of why people who seemed to be decent people became complicit in the atrocities of the Third Reich. However, the book as a whole just didn't do it for me. The prologue is very clunky and I wasn't that interested in the adults' stories in that section, many of them from men who make few appearances in the book. The timeline jumped back and forth, over huge swaths of time, and between characters' points-of-view. It made the story feel disjointed and ruined the plot tension in at least two places (and spoiled a plot point for those of us who know anything about immediate postwar Germany and Central Europe). What did interest me very much was the point-of-view given to us by Martin, Benita's son, who is about 6 or 7 when the war ends but we aren't given that much from that particular character at that point in time.
The Women in the Castle is a good book but it's audience definitely wasn't me. Compared to recent reads like Pachinko, Everything Belongs to Us, and Rabbit Cake there were too many things that weren't to my taste.
Dear FTC: I read a galley copy that was sent to my store.