Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly***-****

lilacgirlsLilac Girls is the story of three women during World War II. I received a DRC for this book courtesy of Net Galley and Random House Ballantine in exchange for an honest review. I rate this novel 3.5 stars.

The story centers around Caroline Ferriday, an actress and New York socialite that volunteers at the Consulate organizing clothing and other essential items for French orphans; Kasia, a Polish teenager that is active in the resistance movement; and Herta Oberheuser, a doctor given one opportunity to practice medicine under the Nazi regime…at Ravensbruck. All of these are based on people that existed, though the story is a fictionalized account.

Kelly’s debut novel is strong in historical detail and setting. Here she describes Kasia’s home town in Poland:

 

Lublin rose beyond them in the distance, like a fairy-tale city, scattered with old

red-roofed pastel buildings as if a giant had shaken them in a cup and tossed

them on the rolling hills.

 

Whether it’s at Ravensbruck, which was a Nazi concentration camp, at an orphanage in France, or in a glittering nightclub, Kelly nails setting. I would like to see her rely less on crutches such as famous people of that time period that pop into the scene—this device signals a lack of confidence to me, and Kelly can get by without these props.

I also would have liked to see less brand name identification, which looks a lot like product placement. The whole advertising jingle for a particular brand of cookies, and a particular New York department store whose name may actually have appeared some thirty or forty times hindered the novel more than it helped; Kelly will do well to leave her advertising career behind when she sits down to write fiction. But this is her first  novel, and given what I see here, I think we can expect great things from her in the future; she is just getting warmed up.

In addition to crafting resonant settings, Kelly does the world a favor in telling about the experiments done on members of the Polish resistance, known as “the rabbits” because of the way they hop around rather than walking after their legs have been experimented on surgically, often done to them in ways that further medical knowledge in no way at all. Though it is critical to remember that what Hitler and the Nazi regime did to the Jews was real—and it’s more important than ever now that most World War II veterans have died and revisionists would like to rearrange the historical record and count the camps as an exaggeration of the facts—few know of the extent to which other groups were also sent away, often to die before the end of the war. The author makes an important contribution to historical literature by doing this.

That said, I have to confess that I am a little bit disappointed because I have wanted to read more about the resistance movement itself, and when I read the teaser for this story, I thought that one character’s life within the story would center on this aspect of the war. Instead, Kasia is arrested almost immediately, and once inside the camp, her story is in many ways like other Holocaust stories.  It’s horrific, and if you have not read any other stories set during the Holocaust, then you will certainly want to read it. I have read enough Holocaust stories, and this character never stops being fictional for me.  And the same is true for Caroline, who seems shallow and superficial despite her sacrifices and tireless effort.

The character that makes me sit up and take notice is Herta. I can’t recall having read a Holocaust story in which a Nazi speaks to us in the first person, and the gutsy depiction of this opportunistic woman mesmerizes me. The offhand remarks that Herta makes to rationalize her choices as she slides down that slippery slope ethically, letting her standards be eroded in order to further her career and increase her own standard of living, are chilling and immediate. I believe in this character. Kelly is deft in the way she depicts this ambitious but morally pliable, solipsistic individual. There are a hundred chances to make her into a caricature, but Kelly’s subtle finesse steps back every time this might occur, and the result will leave you breathless with horror.

Whether to invest the full jacket price of this novel depends on how deep your pockets are and whether you have read a lot of Holocaust literature. If you haven’t, you’ll want to add this title to your collection. And come what may, Kelly will be a writer to watch in the future.

 

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