May 14 2008
Dear Mrs. Jenoff,
In my never ending quest to find historical novels set in unusual times and places, I stumbled on “The Diplomat’s Wife.” Off the top of my head, I can’t recall anything similar to it – Polish, Jewish, resistance heroine who starts as a Gestapo prisoner who is saved by the American invasion of Germany, who then finds and loses love in the chaos of post war Europe, then goes on to forge a life for herself and her daughter only to have her past catch up with her during the fall of Czechoslovakia. Yep, can’t think of too many other novels that fit that description. Based on the blurb, I almost didn’t read it. Want to talk dark description of a book? Want to leave a reader with the impression that this poor heroine goes through the wringer and might not have a very happy ending? Yeah, that’s what I thought until I read the book.
Marta Nederman is one strong woman. I once read something about resistance fighters that said they were willing to kill badly wounded comrades to keep them out of the hands of the Germans. Without going into gory details, you make it plain that there were times when Marta wished she’d turned her gun on herself after shooting a German officer. Then after the camps and prisoners were liberated by the Allies, she still has to physically recover and try to determine where she’ll go in a world where she has no one.
I was totally mesmerized as I watched Marta struggle to find a place for herself. She has no family left, no home to return to even if she wanted, a satchel that holds her entire worldly possessions and an American GI who keeps popping up in her life. Some might call this portion of her life a series of astounding coincidences but after having read of survivors whose lives turned on just such unlikely events, I can believe it.
And even after life throws her down another time, she still manages to keep going. To be thankful to be alive in a time when untold millions died and she had watched her friends give their lives to fight the Nazis. To enjoy her daughter even while wishing that her married life could have been all she once dreamed it would be. To seize the chance to use her past to make a difference in a Europe that was falling to communism a little more every day.
The scenes of Marta’s recovery at Leopoldskron Castle, her desperate efforts to get a visa to England from Paris, the political unrest in Prague and devastation of the Soviet sector of Berlin were riveting. I thought it realistic that she made some mistakes since she is “only a diplomat’s wife” and not a trained spy. Her second guessing her decision to stay in Prague and then journey to Berlin in the face of assassination attempts makes sense when she thinks of her daughter waiting for her at home. Her choice to keep going fits with her character as she remembers those who died and thinks of how many could be helped if she can pull off this mission.
I did figure out some of the twists and turns you tossed into the second half of the book. Though you did surprise me with a couple of big ones. The ultimate denouement scene did veer into soap opera territory which is why I’ve graded down a little. I also wondered at how little Marta thinks of what happened to her once she gets to England. Yes, she says she wants to put those horrible memories behind her and occasionally something will vividly bring her past into her present thoughts but I would think she’d have more outward scars from six years of surviving such a terrible war. But maybe this is due to a difference in how we deal with trauma now vs then. Still, my grade is a strong B.
This is a sequel to last year’s “The Kommandant’s Girl.”