Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Jessica Shattuck - The Women in the Castle

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 resister 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 naive Benita, has fallen into the hands of occupying Red Army soldiers. Then she locates Ania, another resister’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.

Comment: This is the buddy read my friend H. and I agreed for march. Books with or about the WWII theme are many and since it's a theme we both like, its no wonder sometimes we settle on one. This book has cute covers (all the ones I saw are beautiful) which is a plus and the blurb sounded promising and the decision wasn't hard to make. We finally got into it this month but I must say that, for me, it ended up being less amazing than what I imagined.

In this book we meet and follow three women right after the end of the WWII in Germany. They are wives, widows to be more precise, of some of the men involved in the attempted assassination of Hitler in 1944. That failed and the men were executed but Marianne, the wife of an important man, has promised to help all the wives she could if the plans didn't go well. As soon as the war ends and people can start traveling again, she helps Benita and her son Martin, as well as Ania and her two boys. They all go to live in Marianne's husband's family castle with Marianne's children while healing from the effects of the war. As they deal with the past, can they look for to some kind of steady or even a happy future?

At first I was quite eager to read this book. I confess I created some expectations of what this story could be about and how it would develop... I anticipated hard, heartbreaking scenes, emotions and, by the blurb, I fabricated in my head this sweet second chance type of plot where these women - who suffered - had to live with survivor's guilt and the terrible memories but, with time and caring, they might be able to have a second chance at love or, if not that path exactly, at least the women would have a strong friendship and their lives would somehow be related to some kind of life at the castle or big house as I pictured instead.

Why did I imagine this would go onto sweet/ tender relationships among the women and perhaps new romances for them, as if this would be an attempt to grab life while they could after a terrifying existence while the nazis were in power, I don't know, but that was the idea I set my hopes on which means after the first chapters I started to feel a little disappointed. It's true this isn't the author's fault nor the book's, but to be honest, the story that was presented didn't win me over and changed my mind. 

It is clear the author have investigated the theme, in fact her family is part German so she had grandparents who could give a personal view of those days. She also includes notes at the end of the book to add some extra information. I can believe she has spend al those years creating and shaping the novel and that is never to be brought don, for there was a lot of effort here. However, to me, the writing wasn't as intimate as it could be. I wonder if the somewhat sense of guilt she admitted in the notes of being German and having the weight of History wasn't one reason to write less...emotionally?

I'm not saying there aren't touching or hard scenes/information here about what the nazis did and how that affected people, especially civilians in Germany, after all the enemies of the nazi regime weren't only the larger groups we tend to hear about (Jews, Allied forces, etc) and certainly many German citizens suffered but I got this from my experience in reading other books, not as much by what I was reading here. Yes, this is all quite personal and others see it differently but I think the author could have made this emotional. I felt sorry for the characters and I wished they could be able to evolve from wat happened and be there for their children, etc. But the characters felt rather boring to me.

Marianne is the main character, she is the driven force that unites these people together, although she is a little set on her goal and can't seem to see the softer side of others and that not all react like she does. Benita is younger but her experiences during the war and as soon as it ends are the worst of the three. I felt very sorry for her but despite what was being said on the page I kept having difficulty connecting with her. Ania is the most resilient, with a better ability to notice the details and the practicality of things. I felt more empathy with her.

These are the women whose choices we see while they are in each other's lives. But sadly for me, they don't live together al that long and while they do their relationship never goes beyond what it is when they arrive at the castle. Several chapters are about the past of each, about the war times and then about the future, while they are apart, etc. Now, I don't really ind this tactic but then why was this title chosen, it suggests the action will be mostly set in the castle and, after all, it isn't.

I'm sounding rather picky, I know, but despite the fact it was easy to turn the pages, I wasn't feeling completely invested in the characters' journey nor in what they experienced. The way things went, I was not convinced this was the story told in the best way possible. I know this will be unfair to say but to me these characters will be forgotten quickly, for the book didn't get past average to me, the connection just wasn't there.

Grade: 6/10

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