Knopf Doubleday: 4/1/2014
Hardcover, 352 pages
My Thoughts:A spellbinding new novel of contraband masterpieces, tragic love, and the unexpected legacies of forgotten crimes, Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Treasure weaves a tale around the fascinating, true history of the Hungarian Gold Train in the Second World War.In 1945 on the outskirts of Salzburg, victorious American soldiers capture a train filled with unspeakable riches: piles of fine gold watches; mountains of fur coats; crates filled with wedding rings, silver picture frames, family heirlooms, and Shabbat candlesticks passed down through generations. Jack Wiseman, a tough, smart New York Jew, is the lieutenant charged with guarding this treasure—a responsibility that grows more complicated when he meets Ilona, a fierce, beautiful Hungarian who has lost everything in the ravages of the Holocaust. Seventy years later, amid the shadowy world of art dealers who profit off the sins of previous generations, Jack gives a necklace to his granddaughter, Natalie Stein, and charges her with searching for an unknown woman—a woman whose portrait and fate come to haunt Natalie, a woman whose secret may help Natalie to understand the guilt her grandfather will take to his grave and to find a way out of the mess she has made of her own life.A story of brilliantly drawn characters—a suave and shady art historian, a delusive and infatuated Freudian, a family of singing circus dwarfs fallen into the clutches of Josef Mengele, and desperate lovers facing choices that will tear them apart—Love and Treasure is Ayelet Waldman’s finest novel to date: a sad, funny, richly detailed work that poses hard questions about the value of precious things in a time when life itself has no value, and about the slenderest of chains that can bind us to the griefs and passions of the past.
Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman is highly recommended for those who enjoy WWII historical fiction based on facts.
Following three different time periods, Love and Treasure opens in the present with a granddaughter, Natalie Stein, caring for her dying grandfather, Jack Wiseman. Then the story jumps back in time, to 1945 at the end of WWII, when then Lt. Jack Wiseman is with the US troops in Austria who seize a train full of treasures that were all originally items confiscated from Hungarian Jews by the Nazis - the so called Hungarian Gold Train. Jack becomes involved with with Ilona, a Holocaust survivor, who eventually breaks his heart and leaves him to go to Palestine. Jack ends up keeping an enamel peacock necklace in remembrance of Ilona, but his dying wish is that Natalie returns it to its rightful owner. In the present, Natalie travels to Budapest in hopes of tracking down the rightful owner and discovers the necklace was depicted in a painting, Portrait of Frau E. The last part of Love and Treasure takes another jump back in time to 1913 where we meet Frau E, Nina Schillinger.
Waldman does an exemplary job incorporating history with a richly layered story. The complicated story is told through the perspective of characters based in three different time periods and under very different circumstances. Her characters are finely crafted, multidimensional people, flawed but realistic. She doesn't shy away from some of the less than stellar characteristics of her characters and those around them, like the officers who furnished their quarters with items from the train, or Jack taking the peacock necklace, but Waldman also treats her characters with care and compassion rather than harsh judgement as they try to do the best they can in their circumstances.
This is a perceptive, well written novel that assumes a measure of intelligence on the part of the reader as you follow the three separate stories that combine to make a complete picture of who originally owned the peacock necklace. There is a wonderful sense of time and place captured in the writing of each part of the story, allowing them to separately represent their respective time periods but also making the whole of the story that much richer for the care taken with them.
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday for review purposes.