Margot Rosenthal is the only child of an aging German widower, a professor who has taken on a diplomatic role to aid in the 1919 Paris peace talks. Having spent all the years of the Great War safely squirreled away in an English university, Margot is unprepared for the hostility facing her countrymen and herself, as well as the devastation the war has wrought on the social fabric of her world.
Once in Paris, however, Margot makes some unexpected acquaintances: an independent Polish musician named Krysia, who is involved with the radical leftist world, and Georg, an attractive German naval officer hoping to ensure German participation in the creation of a new world order. Margot is drawn to both of these unconventional characters, despite her father’s trepidation about her new relationships. But as she gets closer, her misgivings about returning to life in Berlin grow.
"The book takes place across a number of locations in three countries, and [Jenoff] provides very detailed descriptions of the neighborhoods and streets her characters traverse.... Jenoff is sensitive to her protagonist without pandering to the audience’s expectations. Margot benefits from the author’s treatment; despite her traditional leanings, she still manages to surprise the reader at times."
As it turns out, Margot has more to contend with than the conference. With the war over, she must accept the responsibilities she has been shielded from while warfare rages across Europe. With every passing day, Margot gets closer to having to face Stefan, her German fiancé who has been transformed by the war from a solid, optimistic youth to an emotionally and physically battered war veteran. Each encounter with Georg leaves her more confused and divided --- she knows that her place is by Stefan’s side, but cannot deny the deep connection she feels with the man she has just met.
Pam Jenoff has done her research in terms of the geographical composition of the story. The book takes place across a number of locations in three countries, and she provides very detailed descriptions of the neighborhoods and streets her characters traverse. While this detail helps to create vivid imagery, at times passages (particularly those that focus on dress and comportment) become repetitious. Though the elbow grease is admirable, the book would not have suffered were some of these descriptions whittled down.
Jenoff’s observations better serve the story when it comes to Margot’s struggles to determine how to balance her desire to follow her own aspirations with what her loved ones expect of her. This is a difficult journey, complicated by rash past decisions that Margot made to please others. Determined not to make the same mistakes, yet struggling to act appropriately, Margot has to decide how she fits into the world emerging after the Great War. Jenoff is sensitive to her protagonist without pandering to the audience’s expectations. Margot benefits from the author’s treatment; despite her traditional leanings, she still manages to surprise the reader at times.
To this reviewer, it’s disappointing that Jenoff’s various descriptions of her protagonist’s sexual desires are so formulaic and maidenly. Although this is typical of the genre (and no one is looking for anything X-rated), it’s unfortunate because in general Jenoff is able to overcome the traditional limitations of her genre and spends so much time freeing Margot from similar constraints.
There are many hints of future history throughout the book. Jenoff’s choice to make her main character and family Jewish begs the question of how they view their standing in Germany and if they have any premonition regarding what is to come. Few of the characters who surround Margot hint at the anti-Semitism that was (as has been amply recorded) fairly rampant throughout Europe before the rise of National Socialism in Germany. Perhaps Margot has been sheltered to have encountered so little of that attitude, but it seems more likely that Jenoff is deliberate here, including a consciousness in her story that one would not expect the characters to possess.
Forcing readers to consider these questions could cause the book to take on a doomed tenor. But Jenoff does not succumb to the temptation to use readers’ knowledge of World War II to lend weight to her book. Instead, Margot’s dreams still feel worth pursuing, noteworthy because it would be so easy for her to disappear in the madness of this historic era.
Reviewed by Rebecca Kilberg on January 31, 2013