We read this book for my book club and, sadly, a communal thumb's down was given. Nancy Huston came up with a brilliant idea: trace the generations from present to past, so that each time you move to the next chapter, you see a glimpse of the parents of the previous adult and can see what happened so that he or she developed with all his or her complexities. Unfortunately, the story just didn't come together. I felt, instead, that I was given jolting stories without much connection from one to the next. And unfortunately, the ending just felt too cheeze with the connection of her fame and love. Seriously Nancy? You had such a great idea but then smattered it with the Harlequin instead of getting down to the dirt of the complex characters that you created. (But why the fuzzy birthmark?!)
I think that had the author had another turn of this book, to remove the romance and provide greater insight into how the start and finish connect, it would have been amazing. It's too bad.
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I just finished reading this book, and while it had me intrigued throughout the majority of it, the book on a whole was a disappointment. Each section stands on its own as a short story, but when read in succession, they lose something. They do not connect very well. The author never really explains the meaning of this mole that each generation has, or why Sadie never reveals that she does in fact have the mole (her family is led to believe it skipped a generation with her.) What is lacking, I think, is more to connect these four stories, other than the mole and each haviing a voice to tell their particular place in the family's history. Much is left unexplained. Like, what does Sol, the boy in the first story, have to do with saving humanity and why does he deign himslef to be some kind of higher being, at the age of six? This is never explained and has nothing to do with any of the following chapters, much to my disappointment. As well, I kept reading toward the last chapter with anticipation, hoping it would reveal some kind of great mystery, and explain Sol and his superiority complex, but there is no great mystery, and nothing is explained. Maybe something was lost in the translation, I don't know, but the book left me feeling unfufilled and rather disappointed. It was like each chapter was leading up to something big, but that something was never delivered.
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
Research for this historical novel neededFeb. 21 2009
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I grew up a child in Nazi Germany, therefore perhaps look at this novel with a more critical eye. After the first few pages bored me, and the little protagonist Sol disgusted me, I came across the word, Lebensborn, and curious, I read on. (for more information on the subject, go to [...])
I sadly could not connect. I found Huston's description of children unnatural, while some of their childish thoughts struck me as real. There is a contradiction in her writing that makes for arduous reading. Yet, sprinkled through the pages are passages of lyrical and magical prose. The last two segments of Sadie and then Krystina-Erra flowed better and the characters were driven by love. Love is an important ingredient in any book. It seems to me that the writer, despite her many prizes, had missed out on doing research. Her editors must be blamed as well. It is a novel, fiction, but since it deals with an important period of history, it should be accurate and researched. Examples: No one drank hot chocolate in the spring of 1945 (chocolate in any shape had not been available for years), no one had a big fat hunk of pork-bone to eat, the weather was not icy cold as January tends to be, but in 1945 it happened to be one of the warmest Januaries, however, Huston describes it as bitter-cold. After the bombing raid on Dresden, the worst on the 13th and subsequent one on the 14th of February, not as she limits the raid to Valentine's Day--when approximately 100,000 - 300,000 people died--the weather was like spring. My father's family camped out--safe from bombs in Dresden--in the open hills, since the weather was so warm. The Americans entered Saxony in April, not in June, and withdrew in July, ceding this part of Germany to the Russians. The Ukraine was already part of the Soviet union before WW II, in fact the Russians had starved many of the peasants there in order to achieve greater dominance and were hated. The Germans were looked upon as liberators, until disillusionment set in when they treated them as inferior Slavs. There were many blonds in the Ukraine, tracing their bloodlines back to Vikings. Sending blond children to Germany if the parents had been killed might be accurate, but this is not what Huston writes. The dirty conditions the children were kept in is contrary to what the Nazis tried to achieve, namely, healthy Aryan children, who would be superior in looks and health. They would have been treated and fed well, perhaps not coddled, but not beaten either. Huston writes fiction, but if a writer deals with history he/she should at least be accurate. There are enough real horrors the Nazis committed, without exaggerating or making up new ones that are untrue.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Maybe we're not who we thinkJan. 1 2009
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This book definitely got better as I got into it; in fact, I almost put it down during the first chapter. A six year old with a mind like Sol's is very disturbing and not even realistic. However, as the stories of the father and grandmothers were told, I found myself hooked.
War is messy and creates messy situations, events and families. I have never read about the Germanization of stolen children under the Nazis. This provides a fascinating read to anyone interested in stories of WWII; however, I must agree with some of the reviewers who pointed out the lack of connection with the characters. I did immediately go back to the first and reread parts that took on much more significance after I knew the ending.
Perhaps this story also demonstrates the profound effect mothers have on their children even when they aren't a part of their lives. I found this book interesting, readable, and thought provoking. I just wish I would have liked these people a bit better, but maybe that's the point: each generation was doomed to carry the baggage accumulated by those that came before them.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
I was disappointed with this book and don't know why the French liked it so well.May 5 2009
M. C. Crammer
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I won't describe the plot since so many others have done that.
First, I would advise reading it from back to front, reversing the order in which it was written so that you end up hearing the story in chronological order, not reverse chronology (going further back in time with each of the four sections). There was no advantage (or art) to doing it that way, and you didn't know as you read what might be important as you got further into the book (what happened to certain characters).
The children were utterly unbelievable and on the whole, the characters, including the children, were unlikable. Please, give me a character or two I can like!
Even more troubling for me (as a history major) was the author's ignorance of the periods she was writing about. For example, I personally find it hard to believe that a German facility during World War II bent on teaching Polish children to be German children would teach them to sing "Jingle Bells"! Aside from it not being a German carol (and there are lots of German Christmas carols), raising the question of whether they were trying to teach the children to be German or American, during a war people are unlikely to sing their enemy's songs!
Other mistakes had to do with the child in Toronto in 1962 (a year in which I was a child in the US). Six year olds (then or now) do not learn ballet wearing uncomfortable "pointe" shoes -- no way. They wear (wore) leather slippers -- aside from en pointe dancing damaging the feet of small children, their feet simply aren't strong enough yet to dance en pointe.
Brownies do not earn badges, and even when they get older, the badges are not given to the best in a competition -- they simply represent achievements of mastering skills.
Garter belts were not used by 6-year-olds to hold up woolen socks, but by older females to hold up nylons. A 6 year old would have worn tights or knee socks.
A 6 year old child who initially thinks people speaking Yiddish are in fact speaking German (a language she likely has never heard) would not then have to ask her mother -- speaking German to an old friend -- what language they were speaking, would she?
Finally, old childhood friends who meet up again after many years are unlikely to immediately begin having sex -- one assumes that the childhood relationship was not sexual, after all.
These things may not bother others, but I kept thinking "This book is so ridiculous -- how did this woman get away with so little fact checking?" The result was I took with a grain of salt everything she said about the central theme -- a program whereby Germans took Polish children (or children from other conquered areas) from their parents and placed them with German homes. Much she said about this is suspect, in my opinion (shipping Polish children, taken from their parents, to death camps, for example).
Finally, the author never addresses the question of whether taking children from the only home they've known (the German homes) is almost as bad as the Germans taking the children from their original homes, particularly when the children are going not to relatives or parents, but to non-German adoptive parents. In retrospect, we ought to be able to raise the moral issues involved on what should have happened. In fact (which the author apparently didn't know), many of the children were already orphans when recruited into the Germanization program (there was a nasty war going on, after all).
The style is easy to read (unusual for a translation). It made pretty good airplane reading: I bought this at a Canadian airport (Canadian author!) with my last Canadian dollars, but I probably should have given the money to charity instead.
I would not recommend paying seventeen Canadian dollars for this book! And if you care about getting the details right, you'll probably find this book as annoyingly sloppy as I did.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Fast, unique readJuly 31 2008
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Vine Customer Review of Free Product
This book is written in a very interesting style: four different sections allow you to experience four generations of a family, each character when they were age six. Through the four separate stories, you see how each generation has formed the one that comes after it.
It starts with the youngest, a very spoiled and self-absorbed child, Sol, whose mother dotes on him and has taught him to believe that he is destined for greatness and is pretty much the center of the universe. We are also introduced to the other generations; his father Randall, grandmother Sadie, and great-grandmother Erra. Because of the unique format of the book, we form opinions of each character by seeing their interaction with the generations before and after them, but only by later reading about their own 6th year of life can we understand why they are the way they are.
Although I was sometimes a little confused by the "backwards" storytelling and had to flip toward the front of the book to re-read some parts, I liked the concept and thought it was much more interesting than if the story line had gone from Erra in 1944 to Sol in 2004. The characters still had the same strengths and weaknesses, but the hidden history was much more powerful than a "straight" novel would have been.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
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The author uses an interesting narrative technique, of backwards storytelling crossing 4 generations. Each is told from the perspective of a six-year-old, starting with Sol (2004), his father Randall (1982), his grandmother Sadie (1962) and his great-great grandmother Kristina (1944-45). The story is mostly about Erra=Kristina=GG (great-grandmother), and the impetus is Sadie's digging and discoveries into her mother's origins. She is the main character, and the story might have been possible being viewed only through Sadie as narrator, and later Kristina's childhood narration.
Four generations are tied together by a birthmark. Each has determined it's mark as a secret or a shame, a magical friend, or simply a nuisance. Sol is the first narrator, he is an extremely disturbing and prococious child who has false Messianic notions, as well as sick and perverse fantasies. His parents are typical caricatures, and provide for many comical moments as they try to childproof his entire world, while unbeknownst to them, he is developing into a psychological sicko. Anyway, the story gets interesting when Grandma Sadie decides on a family visit to Munich Germany and a reunion of her mother Erra=Kristina with her sister Greta. So self-centered Sol thankfully fades to the background.
Randall's story gets more interesting because you see more of what drives Sadie to find out the facts, her obsession with family history, and Nazism, her "Jewishness" as atonement for her suspected inherited guilt. And the contrast of her orthodoxy with the liberal views of her husband Aron.
It is in Sadie's story that you understand the pain, and the confusion, of a child who does not know who she is and where she comes from. She bonds with Peter Silbermann, one of her mother's husbands, and feels a sense of belonging when he takes her to Katz's every Sunday. As Sadie Silbermann she actually got to talk to kids in school and was accepted by them. Yet her life is thrown apart when witnessing a lurid and unnecessary scene between her mother and a stranger resulting in the loss her stepfather Peter and a realization that there is a dark evil mystery in her mother's origins. From this background Sadie becomes an activist historian, and devotes her life to research into Nazism, the displaced people from the Aryanization programs, and finally brings her mother face to face with the sister she grew up with and the past she strove to forget. Finally, Kristina's story is poignant and also the most childlike. It provides a fitting ending to the saga.
Although I enjoyed the story, and the tracing of Kristina's story to the home she grew up in, and the secret (which is not such a secret, and easily figured out), I thought the choice of six-year-old narrators disturbing for the loss of innocence and adult content that was attributed to them. Perhaps a cynical teen would have been more appropriate. In any case, if you enjoyed this book, you'd like The Book Thief which is about a young girl growing up in the same period of time in Germany. Death is the narrator and used very effectively there.