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In this novel that alternates between the Second World War and the present, Ellen Umansky explores the relationship between Rose and Lizzie, who meet after Lizzie's father dies in California. Rose knew him for many years. He had owned a painting called "The Bell Hop," by an artist Chaim Soutine until it was stolen. The painting is what ties the two sides of the novel together, with two women leading very separate lives until they meet and make friends. Rose is older, having grown up in Vienna in the 1930s with her parents and brother. Lizzie lives in Manhattan but she grew up in Los Angeles and she returns there to sort out her father's belongings.
At its heart this novel delves into the terrible effects of the persecution of Jewish families by the Nazis and the difficulties in family relationships. The painting by Soutine was beloved by Rose's mother, who was killed by the Germans. Rose, in her 70s now in the present day, yearns to see the painting again. On the other hand, the meaning of the painting is quite different. She got blamed for enabling the theft of the painting when she was a teen, and she has felt guilty about it all her life. She wishes she could find out what happened to the picture. Her mother died young, and her father was her only parent for most of her life. Her sister had emotional problems and was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
So there is plenty in the book to delve into. It covers nearly a century, with a lot on the life in 1930s Austria and 1940s London, as well as modern America. The writing is lively, very focused on the female characters, with plenty of dialog. There's a lot of detail in the different scenes and it sometimes feels like it is trading on the seriousness of the subject matter. Readers get some idea of how difficult it was for Jewish parents in pre-war Austria to get out and keep their children safe. We see how difficult it was for children who have been moved to a new country living without their parents, no longer able to communicate because of the war. And we also learn something about the horror of realizing that your parents are no longer alive, of gradually giving up hope of ever seeing them again. These are heavy topics, and it's not so clear whether Umansky sheds much light on them.
There's a lot about Lizzie's childhood, her life growing up, her family, her failed marriage, and a new romance in her life. Her life lacks the drama of Rose's, but Umansky paints a more vivid picture of modern life. She's a sympathetic vibrant character, more so than Rose, who mostly seems sad. So there's balance between the two sides of the story. Nevertheless, there's not enough mystery to really propel the plot forward, and the resolution at the end is a bit too straightforward.
Karen White performs the unabridged audiobook with conviction and energy, and she gives the characters plenty of emotional intonation. She keeps the 12.5 hours of the book enough momentum to keep it going.
© 2017 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches philosophy in NYC.
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