"Lilac Girls" by Martha Hall Kelly

The cover of “Lilac Girls” (2017), showing three young women dressed in mid-20th century style, suggests they are chatting as they stroll about…what? Romance? Adventure? Where to have tea? Yet, readers do not have to delve very far into this novel before learning the characters within have much more critical things to deal with.

Martha Hall Kelly’s breakout novel spans twenty years in the darkest period of modern European history, those from 1939 to 1959, from the point of view of three young women. The stories of these women, whose lives were irreparably changed by the cataclysm of the Nazi regime, are woven through the book. Caroline Ferriday is a wealthy socialite, volunteering in New York City at the French Consulate, when her work becomes frenetic as she struggles to help French refugees. Kasia Kuzmerick is a teenager in Lublin, Poland with boyfriend problems, when a careless delivery—her first for the underground—results in her and her mother being crammed onto a train headed to the East German concentration camp Ravensbruck. Herta Oberheuser is a young German doctor from Dusseldorf, who begins as a counselor at a camp run by the female wing of the Nazi Party and accepts a position as the only female doctor at Ravensbruck.

Within the novel, Caroline’s involvement as an American working to aid those fleeing from Europe, becomes the positive energy of the book that holds it together. As you might imagine, the stories of Kasia, as a prisoner in the camp, and Herta, as a doctor there who is required to act as directed, involve horrors that are sometimes difficult to read.

Kelly reports in her Author’s Note that her book in based on real people. As a New Englander, she once visited the Connecticut home of Caroline Ferriday’s family and found a treasure trove of information about Caroline’s work which extended long after the war. She learned that this socialite volunteer became an advocate for a group of young women, the real Kasia being one, who were experimentally and brutally operated on during the years they were confined in Ravensbruck camp. Ms. Ferriday worked unceasingly to make the post-war lives of the women, labeled “Rabbits,” better by raising money and arranging to bring them to the United States for medical treatment, respite care, and even some sightseeing.

“Lilac Girls” is a prime example of the kind of beautifully crafted and important historical novel that sheds light on a time, however disturbing, that we should not forget.

 

"Vinegar Girl" by Anne Tyler

 If this review were for The New York Times, I’d surely have been reading Anne Tyler’s “Vinegar Girl” (2016) with a keen eye on noting similarities and differences to the original work, since it is based on Shakespeare's “The Taming of the Shrew.” Luckily I could just sit back and enjoy the playful writing of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author. My days with Shakespeare are a distant memory, but Hogarth Press wants to keep them alive. Five years ago, the publisher began the project of asking top-notch, contemporary writers to reimagine one of Shakespeare's plays in modern times. Several are already out, including Margaret Atwood’s retelling of “The Tempest” and Tracy Chevalier’s nod to “Othello.”

Present-day Kate Battista is a twenty-nine-year-old assistant in a Baltimore nursery school. She lives with her widowed father Louis, a disheveled scientist who works long hours in his lab, and her pretty, self-centered, fifteen-year-old sister Bunny. Tyler shows us immediately what a prickly person Kate is—she says whatever is on her mind, curses inappropriately, has no respect for authority, and doesn't even seem to like kids. Yet Kate's mother had died shortly after her sister's birth, so for the last fifteen years, she has managed the household, taken care of her preoccupied father, and raised her sister. Crabbiness about her lot in life is quite understandable.

The only hint of social interest we see in Kate is her softening around Adam, another assistant teacher who is known for the homemade dream-catchers he gifts to all the women. It is Kate’s father who advances her social life. One day he brings home from the lab his fellow microbiologist, Pyotr Cherbakov, and along with his introduction comes a plan he lays out to his daughter with no apology. He proposes that Kate marry the brilliant assistant, who has an expiring green card, to allow him to stay in this country and continue their project.

Much to the horror of Bunny, who cannot believe their father’s idea, Kate chooses to go along with the marriage, and plans begin for a simple ceremony, naturally without the word “obey.” With a sure, comic hand, Tyler entertains us with details of the arrangement—no guests—and the groom-to-be sprinkling, into his raw English, expressions he picks up—“stepping up to the plate,” “phoning it in.”

Though light and funny, there is definitely enough material for book clubbers to discuss. Readers will have to figure out why Kate goes along with her father’s plan to marry her off to a stranger. Maybe she's tired of watching the four-year-old girls in her class play wedding. Or maybe “she's used up her life” and is ready for a new one. You decide.