The Melody of Secrets

WWII’s END, NORDHAUSEN, GERMANY (1945)/BIRTH OF ROCKET CITY, HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA (1957):  For a relatively short novel (257 pages) spanning two historical timeframes, The Melody of Secrets packs quite an emotional punch!  Three assumptions why:

  1. The author: Jeffrey Stepakoff draws on his deft screenwriting skills to write cinematic scenes, so you feel like you’re watching a movie – a great one!
  2. The dialogue: as a screenwriter, Stepakoff knows how to create crisp, provocative, informative, interesting dialogue that moves the novel forward at a brisk, page-turning pace.
  3. Plot #1: original, shocking, complex, controversial.  Has anyone else fictionalized the historical truth underpinning this novel?  Did you know America recruited Nazi rocket scientists who were SS officers for our space race against Russia during the Cold War?  The best known, Wernher Von Braun, headed a team of a dozen or so German aerospace engineers who came to Huntsville in the ‘50s to launch America’s space program.  In the author’s retelling, besides Von Braun, two other scientist characters are: Hans Reinhardt, whose wife, Maria, is the central voice; and Karl Janssen, whose wife, Sabine, discovers her husband’s secret past, and in her torment confides and warns Maria, setting off one of the novel’s two plot themes: what about the rest of the team?  Is Maria married to a former SS officer?

What did America know?  How much is historically true?

It’s a testament to the novel that the reader MUST know the answers.  I would have preferred an Author’s Note separating fact from fiction.  Absent that, movie-like – and rich book club material – you will feel emotionally and intellectually driven to search out these profound questions once the novel ends, also provocatively.

Here’s a case where the facts are as shocking as the fiction.  Operation Paperclip was conducted by an agency (the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency) specifically created at the end of WWII for the sole purpose of bringing Hitler’s German rocket scientists to the US so we could beat the Russians in space (and prevent Russia from engaging them), at the time of the Cold War.  However, President Truman forbid, by law, our mobilizing any known “member of the Nazi party and more than a normal participant in its activities, or an active supporter of Nazism or militarism.”  So, a secret military operation cleaned up the scientists’ records, enabling them to obtain security clearances to emigrate here and lead our space race.  Truman, apparently, never knew his directive was violated!

After learning this, I appreciated the clever title of a chapter: “Paper Clip.”  Note: while rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun was a recognized Nazi sympathizer and SS officer, I think Stepakoff has fictionalized the Hans and Karl characters, because I can’t find any other references to them.

  1. Plot #2: the novel’s title captures its love story, connecting 1945 and 1957.  Beautiful Maria plays her Pressenda violin beautifully; Hans gave it to her at war’s end.  In 1957, she’s the star of the fledgling Huntsville Symphony Orchestra, practicing for a major fundraising concert for the community.  That’s when she spots Lieutenant James Cooper, who entered her life in 1945.  He still stirs deep romantic emotions, causing her to question the life she has built in the US, and to make painful choices that have national consequences, made even more difficult by her love for her son, Peter.
  2. Structure: as Maria struggles to find answers about Hans and to choose between him and Cooper, the pages are turning quickly.  Initial chapters are compartmentalized: the reader witnesses the plot surrounding 1945; in the next chapter, Huntsville’s players are introduced.  But as the two themes interconnect, the chapters condense and fuse: a single page looks back at 1945 and then switches forward to 1957, then seamlessly races back and forth, back and forth.  As Maria races for the truth, so do we.

With Maria’s truth, would you have made the same decision?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Lorraine

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The Paradise

SEDUCTION: CREATING A STATE-OF-THE-ART DEPARTMENT STORE, PARIS, END OF THE 19TH CENTURY:  Do you wish to read more classics yet keep reaching for contemporary fiction?  Are you hooked on Downton Abbey – for its old-world costumes, grand architecture, upstairs-downstairs relationships?  Do you appreciate Mad Men – for its nostalgic fashions, fabulous style, portrayal of the shallowness of new-world greed?  Émile Zola’s, The Ladies Paradise (original title), written nearly 130 years ago, remarkably satisfies all three.  It is remarkable for its lavish prose, and timely message about our culture’s obsession with money.

The charming cover of this newly published companion to PBS’ recent Masterpiece Theatre TV adaptation of Zola’s classic French novel caught my eye.  It gave me the idea to first read the historical novel, and then watch the seven episodes of Season 1 (available online until 12/17), to see whether the old novel vs. the new visual production wins out.  While I’ve only watched the two-hour premiere episode, I already feel hard-pressed to imagine anything beating 438 pages of extravagant prose detailing the “modern realization of a dreamed of palace,” the creation of a “colossal bazaar,” a “cathedral of commerce” where “women reigned supreme.”

The writing builds to a crescendo that matches the intensity of the shopping fever of the women patrons, seduced into buying luxuries they neither need nor can afford, some resorting to thievery, intoxicated by the beauty of fabrics and other merchandise from around the world filling the ever-expanding establishment.

Two characters drive the story:

Octave Mouret – the “governor” – a brilliant businessman from the south of France who “enjoyed a personal pleasure in satisfying other people’s passions” with his big dreams of revolutionizing a drapery business into an opulent department store known all over Paris and the world.  He has exciting ideas for creating and organizing departments, displaying goods, renewing merchandise, reducing prices, absorbing returns, to build his empire – a “borrealistic vista” for his “nation of women” shoppers.

And Denise Baudu, a beautiful, sweet, sensitive, and innocent poor shopgirl from the Valognes countryside, caring for her two younger brothers, who works her way up the sales ladder and defies Mouret’s boasting that the “woman who will catch me isn’t born yet.”  Hers is not just an endearing rags-to-riches story, but a tale of hardship and endurance and courage to stand up for moral principles.

There are many other characters the reader has to keep track of:  Mouret’s right-hand man, Bourdonacle; Denise’s uncle Baudu, whose business, The Old Elbeuf, is depressing against the onslaught of his competition; Bourras, the old umbrella maker who offers Denise scanty accomodations when she leaves those of her employer, for a time; Denise’s good friend, Pauline; Clara, a jealous salesgirl; many lady patrons such as Madames Marty, Robineau, Desforges, Guibal, and Aurelie; other salespeople such as Hutin, Favier, Deloche, whose unrequited love for Denise is painful; and Jouve, the Inspector.  None, however, compare to Mouret’s passions and Denise’s resoluteness when Mouret tries to buy her love.

Still, the primary raison d’etre for posting this review is the sumptuous, extraordinary prose that literally overwhelms the reader, just as the merchandise of The Ladies Paradise overwhelms the female shopper.  Often, Zola uses the metaphor of water to describe the “steady stream of goods,” the “flood of goods,” the“rising sea” of goods, the “swallowing up.”  And oh how he describes his “creations”:

It was at the further end of the hall, around one of the small wrought-iron columns which supported the glass roof, a veritable torrent of stuffs, a puffy sheet falling from above and spreading down to the floor.  At first stood out the light stains and tender silks, the satins à la Reine and Renaissance, with the pearly tones of spring water; light silks, transparent as crystals – Nile green, Indian-azure, May-rose, and Danube-blue. Then came the stronger fabrics:  marvellous satins, duchess silks, warm tints, rolling in great waves; and right at the bottom, as in a fountain-basin, reposed the heavy stuffs, the figured silks, the damasks, brocades, and lovely silvered silks in the midst of a deep bed of every sort – black, white, and colored – skillfully disposed on silk and satin grounds, hollowing out with their medley of colors a still lake in which the reflex of the sky seemed to be dancing.

The sharp prose also provides Zola a means for Mouret, in one of his “fits of frankness,” to verbalize the growing anti-Semitism of this period in French history.  For this is the novelist who some years later penned an essay, “J’Accuse,” referring to the Dreyfus case, in which a Jewish French army officer was wrongly accused of providing secrets to Germany.  Zola was later sued by the French army, imprisoned, and eventually fled to England.  So, the BBC’s adaptation of his novel to northern England feels right.

I’d love to know which won out for you?  Zola’s novel or PBS?


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The Aviator’s Wife

Illuminating the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh (1927 to 1974):  This fabulous historical novel distinguishes itself by its emotional power.  The ending brought me to tears, when I realized, as the author did, that the answer to her meticulously researched question – “Why do we all love the Lindberghs?” – was: “Because of Anne.”

Melanie Benjamin excels here at her craft.  She has dared to stay true to the  achievements of perhaps the “most famous man in the world” in the early 20th century, yet speculates in depth on the emotions behind his exceedingly private character and his wife’s – including the rise of his Anti-Semitic beliefs at a crucial time in history – and she does so slowly, sensitively, perceptively, convincingly.

The world’s flying hero, Charles Augustus Lindbergh, made history in 1927 at the age of 25, when he became the first person to fly solo, non-stop, across the Atlantic in his monoplane, The Spirit of St. Louis; he was also a prominent admirer of Hitler.  Benjamin has done a superb job in helping us understand how Lucky Lindy/The Lone Eagle evolved from being an isolationist to Anti-Semitic, which America came to believe he was, and his devoted wife, Anne Morrow, finally, painfully, remorsefully concluded he was, too.

Charles Lindbergh was a terrifically controlling husband with secrets.  He married a woman who perceived herself to be a “dull brown pinecone” compared to her glamorous sister, Elisabeth.  Anne Morrow could never get over the aviation hero noticing her, needing her.  Her deep insecurities came at an enormous personal price, having spent her entire married life melting and acquiescing to his unreasonable, outrageous demands.

And yet, Anne Morrow was also Charles Lindbergh’s courageous co-pilot – “The Flying Couple” – and the first woman to become a licensed glider pilot.  She was also a well-educated graduate of Smith College, carrying her family’s educational legacy (her mother later became the College’s President); an Ambassador’s daughter (her father was Mexico’s Ambassador during the Coolidge presidency); a Senator’s daughter (her father was a Senator during the Hoover administration); a talented writer; and the mother of six children, one of whom was kidnapped, the most famous child kidnapping case in the 20th century.

“The Crime of the Century” came early in this complicated couple’s marriage (1931), and so it had profound, everlasting effects on it.  From the moment Charles Junior was taken from inside their home, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s story is one of heart-wrenching grief, amid unrelenting media attention.  Over the years, her marriage is also one of sacrifices, regrets, self-recriminations, betrayal, as well as forgiveness and resilience.

On page 88 of this 400 page novel, the story fast-forwards to 1974 when mysterious letters are given to Anne.  Then, Benjamin skillfully moves the novel back and forth in time and geography – following the Lindberghs from New Jersey to Berlin to Paris to Michigan to Connecticut and to Hawaii – taking us inside Anne’s heart and soul, gradually revealing the haunting mystery of those letters.

Benjamin’s prose is quite clever: Anne laments that she allowed “only one set of goggles between us;” weaves in quotes from the headlines of Life magazine; and uses nursery rhymes to evoke the grieving mind-set of a mother whose child has been lost to her during infancy, singing Humpty Dumpty is broken and All The Kings’ Men, asking: “Could they put the Lindbergh’s together again?”

To discover the answer, I encourage you to read The Aviator’s Wife!  


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Under the Wide and Starry Sky

Drawn from the lives of Scottish writer and poet, Robert Louis Stevenson, and his unconventional American-born wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne Stevenson (1875 to 1914):  I don’t know the last time I read such an immensely satisfying, well-crafted, sweeping saga and learned so much – about the 26th most translated author of all time (according to UNESCO’s Index Translationum) and his devoted wife.  This is a novel you settle into.

From the opening pages of a transatlantic journey from America to Europe, you recognize you’re in the hands of a highly-skilled author.  The prose splendidly sweeps you along on a journey around the globe based on the lives of a famous literary figure and a wife you probably never heard of.  According to USA Today (see Novel Ideas: The Women Behind the Famous Men,” February 13, 2013), Nancy Horan’s 2007 debut novel, Loving Frank, “launched” a new sub-genre in historical fiction, one that makes “history more empathetic, revealing the inside scoop, the almost gossipy side.”

Although this is a hefty book, weighing in at just under 500 pages, Horan has structured it in 90 short chapters, so the reading is brisk, interesting, and inspirational.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky – a lyrical title you learn of its significance on page 159 – is beautifully written, uplifting, and ambitious the way much of Robert Louis Stevenson’s life was.  He had an impressive zest for life and a prolific output, especially considering much of it was spent confined to a bed, due to chronic lung diseases, often nursed back to health by Fanny and her sacrifices.

At a young age, Louis discovered his passion for travel and writing.  He believed:

“If you want to find out who you really are, then go travel … Every chance encounter, every change of landscape in the journey, offered itself up to his pen … to pour all that he witnessed through his soul and onto paper.”

That he was able to travel as much as he did was miraculous since he skirted death many times, his lungs hemorrhaging.  Through it all, Louis feverishly and ferociously dreamt up colorful tales, a “collector of characters,” writing at an unimaginable pace: 30,000 words in three days!   Louis and Fanny lived in many places around the world, including  Skerryvore, Scotland and Bournemouth, England but the climate drove them away to healthier locales: Davos, Switzerland; Saranac, New York; Hyères, on the French Riviera; and the South Sea Islands, especially Samoa, where Louis was his healthiest and “experienced a kind of heaven: He was the water, the birds, the sweet-smelling air.”

For Louis, it was love at first sight for Fanny when 26 and she ten years older.  Hers was a love that grew over time until “he was the most alive person she’d ever met,” despite his delicate physical nature and ability to thrive in solitude, whereas Fanny was robust and had to stay very busy.

We’re introduced to Fanny as the 34-year-old mother of three – Belle, Sammy, and the youngest, Hervey – fleeing her cheating husband in California using “one of the few respectable ways a woman can leave a rotten husband” at that time: studying art in Europe.  Initially she tried Antwerp, then stayed in Grez-sur-Loing, France, where she befriends Louis’ charming cousin and later meets Louis, and then they both went to Paris.

In Paris, Louis discovers a place where a “man could devote his life to his art – and be taken seriously.”  Indeed, he was obsessively serious about the craft of writing, infatuated with the beauty of prose.  Besides painting, Fanny also enjoyed writing but endured great distress at being taken seriously.  She served as Louis’ most insightful and candid advisor, which he both welcomed and balked at, one source of their tensions.

And there were many.  Horan takes us through their highs and their lows – the relentless medical crises and financial stresses, especially before Louis’ work was published and his fame became established.  Literary success crept up on Stevenson slowly.  There’s also a family tragedy, estrangements, and blow-ups over Louis’ many male companions, whom Fanny resented for jeopardizing his fragile health over and over again, and, at one point, wondered if their closeness was homosexual in nature.

Many other characters people this fascinating book.  Most are Louis friends and business associates, one being Henley, his publisher and literary agent in London; a handful become valued confidants of Fanny’s as well, such as the writer Henry James, whose “wickedly funny tongue brightened the house every time he entered it.”  Fanny had a close relationship with Louis’ parents, Maggie and Thomas Stevenson, and his former girlfriend, Fanny Sitwell. The Pacific Island years brought new relationships with chiefs and natives, as Louis became deeply concerned about island politics and the impact of foreign governments (U.S., Britain, Germany) on the islands’ culture and way of life (which he wrote about in A Footnote to History: Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa, 1892).

Louis regaled in reading out loud to his family his stories, so we get to see him creating his memorable characters, like Long John Silver, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  They are part of an enormous body of work for a short-lived life – Treasure  Island, Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Silverado Squatters, New Arabian Nights, The Merry Men, The Body Snatcher, A Child’s Garden of Verses, The Black Arrow, In the South Seas, and many other works of fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and travel writings.

Horan tells us that sometimes she used Robert Louis Stevenson’s own words in the novel’s dialogue, dreamed up the rest.  Unless we return to the wealth of original letters and documents she extensively researched, we cannot discern whether the wonderful prose belongs to Stevenson or Horan, so expertly woven together they are.  For our fictional entertainment, does it really matter?  Two uplifting examples:

Fanny may have experienced dark days, but Louis saw the world as a cup filled over: “I want to take this day, fold it up, and put it in my pocket so I can have it again and again.”  Similarly, he felt the purpose  of writing was to bring joyfulness:

“…writers should find out where the joy resides and give it a voice.  Every bright word or picture is a piece of pleasure set afloat.  The reader catches it and he goes on his way rejoicing.  It’s the business of art to send him that way as often as possible.  I have to believe that every heart that has beat strongly and cheerfully has left a hopeful impulse behind it in the world.”

Because Nancy Horan found inspiration in the lives of Robert Louis and Fanny Stevenson, she too has brightened our world.

Well worth the January  wait!  Lorraine

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CREATING A NEW LIFE – Margot Frank died 1945, Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp/Margie Franklin re-born 1959, City of Brotherly Love:  Goosebumps!  That’s how stirred I felt when I reached page 322, the ending of this superb, haunting novel.  Narrated in a voice haunted by her past, it is written by an author herself “haunted” by the story of two sisters who perished during the Holocaust, Anne and Margot Frank.  Anne we famously know because of her found diary; Margot we barely know although she too wrote a diary, inexplicably lost.  “In creating Margie/Margot,” Cantor (explaining in an elaborative “Author’s Note,” the best I’ve encountered) “wanted to give back what was stolen from her [Margot], even if only in a fictional world.”  Cantor has certainly done that, memorably.

The power of this beautifully paced novel is not only in its heart-tugging story – that Anne Frank’s sister, Margot, somehow managed to escape the Nazis and assumes a new, non-Jewish identity as a legal secretary in Philadelphia – but in the way the prose exposes the hidden, ghost-like, terrified shell of Margie Franklin.  Like Margie, it is subdued, delicate, unadorned, yet it is deeply felt.  Margie/Margot’s story and the converging storylines are, of course, emotionally heavy and complicated.

Some images and phrases are repeatedly employed that help create the haunting effect.  The indisputable evidence of the horrors Margot endured as a young girl: the forever-inked, tattooed identification number Margie fervently and fearfully always hides, by wearing sweaters, regardless of the sweltering heat.  She is constantly wrapping herself up tightly in them whenever she’s frightened or reminded of her past, which is all the time and everywhere.  To convey how all-encompassing these painful reminders are Cantor has structured her novel not in separate chapters that weave back and forth between 1940’s Margot and 1959 Margie, as you might expect, but rather paragraph by paragraph, as memories naturally flood Margie.  That Cantor does this so clearly and so seamlessly is a testament to her fine writing skills.

Margie Franklin is a very lonely woman in her thirties, who feels “sometimes we breathe because we have to, not because we want to.”  She does have a lively friend at work, Shelby, and loving sponsors, Ilsa and Bertram, but even they do not know who she really is so her loneliness and fears are palpable:

“You cannot imagine what it is like to hide until you’ve done it yourself … You cannot understand the fear that courses through you … The fear of discovery, it is the kind of fear that makes your heart feel always full, pounding too fast.  It is the kind of fear that keeps your eyes pried wide open at night amid the dark and the snores of your parents, even if you haven’t slept in days.  And, it is a fear that does not go away, even now, even fifteen years removed, in a new city, with a new name, a new religion, a thick sweater.”

Margie is obsessed with memories of Peter van Pels, who was among those hidden by Miep Gies in an Annex with the Frank family in the Netherlands in 1942, when Dutch Jews were rounded up and transported to Nazi concentration camps.  Seventeen-year-old Margot and Peter made a survival pact to meet in the City of Brotherly Love, change their names (he to Pete Pels), assume non-Jewish lives, and marry.  Margie’s love and search for Peter preoccupies her throughout the novel, and gets very mixed up with her growing feelings for her Jewish boss, Joshua Rosenstein.

Descriptions of eyes are also deftly repeated, presumably because eyes mirror one’s soul.  Margie finds she cannot hide from a Holocaust survivor who immediately recognizes their shared, emptied look.  Margie thinks about her sister’s “sunken eyes,” Peter’s “blue eyes, the color of the ocean,” but it is Joshua’s “gray-green” eyes we’re told most often about it.  They evoke the softness and empathy of a man who cares about anti-Semitism, but as an American Jew cannot possibly understand what persecuted European Jews endured and lost.

Setting this novel in 1959 is brilliant.  It provides the perfect backdrop for tormenting Margie/Margot, since this is when the movie, The Diary of Anne Frank, is playing at theatres everywhere, endlessly.  Margie’s circle may be small but it seems everyone in her world has seen it, talks about it, thinks they know the true story.  But this is only a glamorized Hollywood version of the truth, and maybe not even that.

The ’50s was also a time when anti-Semitic acts were committed in Philadelphia.  These provide another torturous storyline: Joshua wants to litigate a class action suit against a wealthy businessman engaging in anti-Semitic business practices towards his Jewish factory workers, and asks Margie to help.  This ignites profound internal emotions, including the fact that she must do this secretively – more hiding – because Joshua’s father, Ezra, a partner in the law firm is adamantly opposed to the idea.  He “seems to think greatness and money are the same thing, but you know what I think greatness is?” Joshua asks and then answers: “Finding something that terrifies you and then doing it anyway.”

Lately, there have been a number of popular novels fictionalizing the lives of historic people.  Some delineate fiction from truth; others leave you wondering.  Cantor goes to great lengths to separate fact from invention, another feature of this stunning novel readers should greatly appreciate.

Please share your thoughts about this book, Lorraine

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