This novel was recommended to me by my old AP English teacher, so I ordered it without hesitation - without even reading what it was about which was a lovely way to enter this book. Its allure is equal parts compelling plot and compelling characters. It's difficult to describe because it does so many things well at once.
The book begins with an Acknowledgements page that tells a moment from The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal. While he was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp he was brought to a dying SS soldier who wanted to be forgiven by a Jew - this anecdote inspired the novel. The acknowledgements page makes it clear that Picoult did her research, talking to everyone from bakers to dancers to people who work with grief groups to lawyers to Nazi hunters to Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissman Klein (whose book All But My Life is absolutely worth a read) to Germans to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum staff.
The book itself is structured in chapters with alternating points of view which is a quick and easy way to my heart. The perspectives are:
- A fairy-tale-esque story about a baker girl in a small village and a vampire-like creature written by Minka, Sage's grandmother
- "My father trusted me with the details of his death. "Ania," he would say, "no whiskey at my funeral. I want the finest blackberry wine. No weeping, mind you. Just dancing. And when they lower me into the ground, I want a fanfare of trumpets, and white butterflies." A character, that was my father. He was the village baker, and every day, in addition to the loaves he would make for the town, he would create a single roll for me that was as unique as it was delicious...The secret ingredient, he said, was his love for me, and this made it taste better than anything else I have eaten."
- Minka, Sage's grandmother, daughter of a baker, Holocaust survivor who finally shares her story with Sage
- "So you see, this is why I never told my story. If you lived through it, you already know there are no words that will ever come close to describing it. And if you didn't, you will never understand."
- Sage. She's a baker in grief counseling after her mother's death who makes pretty terrible and typical bad life choices like all of us in our 20s and 30s
- "On the second Thursday of the month, Mrs. Dombrowski brings her dead husband to our therapy group. It's just past 3:00 p.m., and most of us are still filling our paper cups with bad coffee. I've brought a plate of baked goods...and just as I am setting them down, Mrs. Dombrowski shyly nods toward the urn she is holding. "This," she tells me, "is Herb. Herbie, meet Sage. She's the one I told you about, the baker. I stand frozen, ducking my head so that my hair covers the left side of my face, like I usually do. I'm sure there's a protocol for meeting a spouse who's been cremated, but I'm pretty much at a loss. Am I supposed to say hello? Shake his handle?"
- Josef Weber, a former SS officer in hiding.
- "You will notice I say nothing about the Jews. That is because most of us didn't know a single Jew. Out of sixty million Germans, only 500,000 were Jews, and even those would have called themselves Germans, not Jews. But anti-Semitism was alive and well in Germany long before Hitler became powerful. It was part of what we were taught in church, how two thousand years ago, the Jews had killed our Lord. It was evident in the way we viewed Jews - good investors, who seemed to have money in a bad economy when no one else had any. Selling the idea that the Jews were to blame for all of Germany's problems was just not that difficult."
- Leo Stein, Nazi hunter
- "My car has, I am sure, the world's last eight-track cartridge player...I'm thinking of this, and whether I should tell my blind date that I'm so tragically hip I buy my music on eBay instead of iTunes.The last time I went out...I spent the whole dinner talking about the Aleksandras Lileikis case, and the woman begged a headache before dessert and took the Metro home. The truth is, I'm lousy with small talk. I can discuss the fine points of the Darfur genocide, but the majority of Americans probably can't even tell you the country where that's taking place. (It's Sudan, FYI). On the other hand, I can't talk football, or tell you the plot of the last novel I read. I don't know who's dating whom in Hollywood. And I don't really care."
Within each plot line are characters that I wish were real. Mary DeAngelis is a former nun who left the order to become a pink haired hiker on the Appalachian Trail where she had a vision of Jesus who "told her there were many souls to feed." She opened up a coffee shop - Our Daily Bread - and hired Sage as a baker. Our Daily Bread's barista, Rocco, speaks only in haiku ("Lennon was brilliant/ if he were alive today/ Can you Imagine?" "Ran out of baguettes / Gave angry folks free coffee/ Tonight make extra.") Josef's sensitive brother who doesn't join Hitler's Youth because his Jewish friend can't and he doesn't want him to feel left out. Minka's best friend who talks her into putting on totally out of character clothes to sit at a hotel bar and smoke and drink and chat with men. Leo's...well, just Leo. He regularly made me laugh out loud, and I frequently stopped my boyfriend's reading to share gems.
At one point, as he tries to mentally slow down during a sexual encounter: "Think of baseball, I tell myself. But I know nothing of value about baseball. So I start silently listing the justices of the Supreme Court, just so that I don't scare her off by moving too fast."
Anyone who is at all interested in the Holocaust should read this book. It's so well written, moving, funny, tragic, and terrible. After closing it I felt like I needed to think for hours and hours and hours about how I felt about it all.