I received a complimentary ARC of this book from Netgalley but all opinions provided are my own.
Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew is unforgettable. Set during the years 1941-1944 and featuring several different perspectives, The World answers the question of what we have to live for in a time of terrible loss and sorrow: love.
The book opens in Berlin, where Hanni’s husband has recently been murdered and her pre-teen daughter, Lea, attacked. As a Jewish woman, Hanni knows that her daughter will be safer somewhere else, but she also feels that she can’t leave her elderly mother behind to travel with her. In her desperation, Hanni pays someone to create a golem—made of clay, able to speak and to protect but bound by her master’s wishes—to travel with her daughter Lea. After the war, Lea must kill the golem, whom they’ve named Ava.
The juxtaposition of someone—Ava—being born into a world where so many are killed and dying is stunning. Devastating. Because Ava’s so very happy to be alive, even as horrific things are happening and even as she fears for her Jewish charge, Lea. Hoffman heartbreakingly complicates this, too; because Ava knows that her greatest responsibility, her obligation, her desire, as she comes to know Lea, is to keep Lea safe no matter what, an act which will eventually necessitate Ava’s own death.
Tangled in this story of Lea and Ava are other stories too: of Lea and Julien, a young man she meets in Paris who becomes a lodestar; Ettie, the golem’s creator; and Marianne, a former servant who worked in Julien’s home. Each story is beautifully told; each one tells a version of war where no one is unaffected, where everyone pays a great price but there is some redemption to be found, too.
The World that We Knew had my heart in its hands. It’s a big story—one that includes folklore and the concrete details of a people suffering and surviving, one that feels very much rooted within a particular time period and also part of a larger story about how humanity at its worst, and best, treats others. And it’s ultimately a celebration of love, of the sacrifice that love sometimes demands and the bravery that it can engender.
Thanks to Grand Central Pub & Read Forever Pub for my complimentary copy of the book. All opinions provided below are my own.
Feelings bombarded me after reading the closing lines of Leila Meacham’s Dragonfly. It would have been kind of hard to avoid such a response, actually. At 569 pages, a lot was bound to happen to happen in this book, and if you throw in the fact that it’s WWII-era historical fiction, well, there you go.
I was sad, happy, contemplative, mostly satisfied but also a little confused (more to come on this later). Maybe most of all I had that feeling you get when you’ve been immersed in a different place and time and feel like you’ve been reawakened to the present.
In essence, Dragonfly is about a group of five young American spies who are sent into German-occupied France in 1942, and only four of them return home. In 1962, when the book opens, their case officer known as The Man in Brown reads that the fifth spy was not executed as the other spies and he believed. What could have happened to the fifth spy? Could she/he still be alive? What follows is an answer to the mystery and a reconstruction of sorts: what drew the spies to their work; their training; and their years in France, ending with the culminating event.
Meacham compellingly creates characters who are relatively inexperienced, even as they’re skilled and devoted to their mission. I love how she establishes their various personal motivations for wanting to be in France and how those motivations are not only inspiration to them, but possible temptation to deviate from mission rules as well.
Any deviation would be superbly dangerous, a fact that’s frequently underlined by the five spies encounters with various Nazis, French collaborators, and even an American traitor while in Paris. There are a lot of characters in this book, and even more than that, a lot of names (each spy has three different names, for ex.), and yet Meacham adeptly establishes connections between them. It’s a literary delight (and also scary since I became invested in the lives of the spies) to see potentially deadly secondary characters popping up in multiple spies’ lives….and contemplate whether it was that secondary character who made the whole mission come tumbling down.
The answer to that question is definitely worth reading, though there was one aspect of the plot that didn’t feel fully explained.
There are occasional moments in Dragonfly when the writing didn’t feel quite as subtle as I would have liked, but overall, along with feeling superbly researched, Dragonfly is engrossing and well-written. I wanted to keep reading so I could discover the answers to the questions posed at the beginning, and also because I cared about the fate of five young Americans who had their own reasons for going to France, not least of which was discovering intel that could save Americans during the war.
TNW Arbitrary Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.
About the Author
When my toddler and infant sleep--or are otherwise engaged--I write, read, and eat lots of chocolate.