Book Review: The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

 

In 1941, during humanity’s darkest hour, three unforgettable young women must act with courage and love to survive, from the New York Times bestselling author of The Dovekeepers and The Marriage of Opposites Alice Hoffman. 

In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, to a convent in western France known for its silver roses; from a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she’s destined to be.

What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never ending.

In The World That We Knew, author Alice Hoffman brings her unique infusion of magic and nature to a store of survival during the worst of times. Starting in Berlin in 1941, the story introduces us to Hanni and her young daughter Lea. Hanni knows it’s only a matter of time until they’re captured and sent to a death camp like the rest of the Jews around them. Desperate to save Lea, Hanni begs for a miracle from the rabbi known to have mystical abilities, but instead, his daughter Ettie offers help in exchange for an escape opportunity for her and her younger sister.

Etti, having listened outside her father’s door for years, has herself grown wise in the art of Jewish mysticism, and uses her knowledge to create a golem — a powerful creature made from clay shaped into human form and brought to life through secret rituals, whose entire purpose is to protect Lea. Hanni can’t escape with her elderly, disabled mother, nor can she leave her behind, so she sends Lea away in care of Ava the golem, to seek what safety might be available to them in France.

France isn’t exactly safe for Jews either. Finding refuge with the Levi family, and joined by Etti, Lea and Ava are still at risk, and finally make their escape before their new shelter is raided by Nazis — but first, Lea forms a connection with the young son of the Levi family, Julien. Lea and Julien make only one demand of one another: stay alive.

From here, the story spirals out in multiple directions. We follow Lea and Ava from one temporary haven to another, including a remote convent where the nuns shelter the children who come to them, at risk of their own lives. We follow Etti into the forests as she seeks and then finds the resistance, desiring only vengeance. We follow Julien on his own path toward escape, refuge, and meaning. For each, and for the other characters we meet, there are dangers around every corner — and yet, there is also the opportunity to help others, to find meaning even in the middle of horror and tragedy.

Once upon a time something happened that you never could have imagined, a spell was broken a girl was saved, a rose grew out of a tooth buried deep in the ground, love was everywhere, and people who had been taken away continued to walk with you, in dreams and in the waking world.

The writing in The World That We Knew is just gorgeous. The author evokes the glory of the natural world, even as the people in it carry out horrific deeds and leave destruction in their wake. There’s magic all around, both in the form of Ava, the golem who starts as a mere bodyguard but finds her own personhood as time goes on, and in the flowers, bees, and birds that surround our characters and interact with them in unexpected ways.

Every now and then a crow would soar past with a gold ring or coat button in its beak, a shiny souvenir of murder.

The characters are lovely and memorable. I especially loved Ava, but it’s also wonderful and awful to see Lea grow up during war, having lost eveyrthing, but still clinging to her mother’s love and her connection to Julien. But really, I can’t just single these two out. There are side characters who come into the story briefly, whose stories we come to know before they exit once more, and their stories have power as well. In some ways, it feels as though the author has painted a picture through her writing of all the lost potential represented by the millions murdered during this terrible time.

And yet, the book is not without hope. Despite the tragedies, there’s still goodness, the possibility of a future, and the possibility of meaning:

What had been created was alive. Ettie did not see clay before her, but rather a woman who had been made by women, brought to life by their blood and needs and desires.

I don’t think I can really do justice to how special and beautiful this book is. The writing is superb, and the story leaves an indelible impression. Highly recommended.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: The World That We Knew
Author: Alice Hoffman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: September 24, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: HIstorical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Book Review: You Me Everything by Catherine Isaac

 

Set in the French countryside on an idyllic summer vacation, a delicious, tender novel about finding joy and love even in the most unexpected places. 

Jess and her ten-year-old son William set off to spend the summer at Château de Roussignol, deep in the rich, sunlit hills of the Dordogne. There, Jess’s ex-boyfriend—and William’s father—Adam, runs a beautiful hotel in a restored castle. Lush gardens, a gorgeous pool, delectable French food, and a seemingly never-ending wine list—what’s not to like? Jess is bowled over by what Adam has accomplished, but she’s in France for a much more urgent reason: to make Adam fall in love with his own son.

But Adam has other ideas, and another girlfriend—and he doesn’t seem inclined to change the habits of a lifetime just because Jess and William have appeared on the scene. Jess isn’t surprised, but William—who has quickly come to idolize his father—wants nothing more than to spend time with him. But Jess can’t allow Adam to let their son down—because she is tormented by a secret of her own, one that nobody—especially William—must discover.

By turns heartwrenching and hopeful, You Me Everything is a novel about one woman’s fierce determination to grab hold of the family she has and never let go, and a romantic story as heady as a crisp Sancerre on a summer day.

I’m not entirely sure what led me to pick up this book at the library — I think I may have read about it on another blog sometime this summer, and something about that colorful cover just beckoned me to it when I saw it on the shelf. I’m so glad I gave into the impulse to pick it up and take it home!

You Me Everything is a sweet and surprisingly down-to-earth story about a single mother, her ten-year-old son, and unexpected second chances.

Jess spent a good part of her relationship with Adam feeling let down by him, and his failure to arrive at the hospital for his son’s birth was the last straw. Now, ten years later, Jess travels to France with William to ensure that the distant relationship between father and son has a chance to finally turn into something real. Jess expects little from Adam for herself, having been burned by his thoughtlessness so many times before, but she’s adamant that he finally step up and become a real presence in their son’s life.

The setting is gorgeous, full of fancy food, beautiful landscapes, endless sun, and great wine. William thrives, and is even willing to put down the IPad once in a while in pursuit of adventure with his dad.

At first glance, I was afraid this would be one of those chick-lit books filled with pretty people in pretty places doing pretty things, but without a whole lot of substance beyond that. Fortunately, my first impressions were wrong.

You Me Everything has deep feeling at its heart. I don’t want to reveal too much here, so I’ll just share that there’s a reason why Jess’s parents push her to spend the summer giving Adam a new chance with his son, and a reason why she agrees. The book has some real sorrow in it, but it also manages to be life-affirming and hopeful. Adam and Jess’s past is complicated and not without plenty of fault to go around — mostly, but not exclusively Adam’s. There’s hurt and miscommunication and some bad times to get past, but as we see through Jess’s memories of their earlier years, Adam was not always a selfish jerk, and they did truly love each other at one point.

The writing conveys the characters’ emotional states while maintaining a sense of fun and good humor, even in the more serious and difficult moments. Jess is a terrific lead character — a devoted mother and daughter, a good friend, and a woman who strives to do the smart and sensible thing. While I thought Adam was worthless at the beginning, we grow to learn more about him, his childhood, and what’s in his heart, so I couldn’t help warming to him over the course of the book. There are some funny scenes that depict parenthood in all its messy, occasionally infuriating, often exhausting glory. And the dynamics between the family members and associated friends who come together throughout the story are priceless.

I ended up really enjoying You Me Everything, and tore my way through the book in about a day and a half. Once I started, I just didn’t want to start. This book is the author’s US debut — I’d definitely want to read more of her work.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: You Me Everything
Author: Catherine Isaac
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: May 1, 2018
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

**Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save