Love and Treasure
I first encountered Ayelet Waldman's writing when she was publishing her Mommy-Track Mysteries series, about a former lawyer (like Waldman herself) and stay-at-home mom who takes up amateur sleuthing in her spare time. The books were fun, breezy and well-written, and seemed to offer a glimpse into a version of Waldman's real-life marriage to one of my favorite authors, Michael Chabon. She has done a lot since those days, publishing three more "literary" novels, as well as a number of controversial essays and developing an outspoken Twitter persona. Now Waldman has published her fourth novel, LOVE AND TREASURE, and it's her most absorbing and ambitious work yet.
The topic of returning artworks and treasures to their rightful (Jewish) owners in the wake of the horrors of World War II has been a topic of discussion lately, thanks to the popularity of the film The Monuments Men, as well as several real-world cases. Waldman also explores this particularly complicated issue in LOVE AND TREASURE, with a three-part narrative as detailed and complex as the artwork whose provenance she traces.
"LOVE AND TREASURE is romantic, provocative and ripe for discussion --- a historical novel that is as timely and relevant as ever."
The novel opens with a brief introduction to elderly Jack Wiseman, living in coastal Maine. Jack is dying and has asked his granddaughter, Natalie, to come and see him. Natalie, who has just gone through a particularly embarrassing divorce, is more than happy to escape her New York City life for a while, especially when he enlists her help in solving a mystery --- tracking down the owner of a beautiful peacock pendant, the same one that she had worn during her ill-fated wedding as her "something old."
Natalie had always assumed the pendant belonged to her grandmother, but in the novel's second section, we learn about how it actually came into Jack's possession. Jack, a military officer, was stationed in Salzburg at the end of World War II. He was assigned to inventory the contents of the so-called Hungarian Gold Train, a Nazi-owned train filled with crates and crates of china, glassware, silver, furniture and jewelry, seized from their original Hungarian Jewish owners. As Jack begins the staggering task of cataloging these possessions, most of which could never possibly be traced back to their original owners, he grows increasingly disenchanted with the military (whose leaders are blatantly poaching the contents of the train to furnish their own homes) and increasingly invested in the plight of the many displaced persons living in Salzburg. In particular, Jack falls in love with a young woman, Ilona, who has lost her entire family in the concentration camps. As Jack loses his grip on the Gold Train's contents, he also finds himself losing his grasp on Ilona, who becomes involved in the movement to resettle in Palestine.
The next section follows Natalie in the present day, as she travels to Budapest to investigate the provenance of the peacock pendant and falls for a man, Amitai, who has his own reasons for caring about the object's origins. And the book’s final portion goes even farther back in history, framed as a 1913 case history of a young woman --- the one whom Natalie and Amitai have been seeking --- undergoing psychiatric care.
Throughout this rich and affecting novel, Waldman explores questions of identity --- how it is shaped and defined, and by whom. She also fearlessly investigates the complicated and tragic history of European Jews in the years before and after World War II, framing the issue through questions of belonging and possession --- of oneself, of one's things, and of one's home. LOVE AND TREASURE is romantic, provocative and ripe for discussion --- a historical novel that is as timely and relevant as ever.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 20, 2014
Love and Treasure
- Publication Date: April 1, 2014
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Knopf
- ISBN-10: 0385533543
- ISBN-13: 9780385533546