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The mark of the angel [Paperback]

Nancy Huston
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Aug. 12 1999
The year is 1957, and the place is Paris, where the psychic wounds of World War II have barely begun to heal. Saffie, a young German woman, becomes maid, then wife to Raphael, a privileged French musician who finds her remoteness provocative and irresistible. One day in the old Jewish quarter of the city, where she has taken Raphael's flute to be repaired, Saffie meets a Hungarian instrument maker - and all their lives are unexpectedly, dramatically altered.
--This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

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From Nancy Huston, a Canadian writer who's lived in France for a couple of decades, comes a modest proposal in the form of a novel: Maybe millennial fiction shouldn't look forward. Maybe it should look back to the shames and sadnesses of the 20th century. The Mark of the Angel, Huston's U.S. debut and a bestseller in France, tells the story of Saffie, a young German girl who takes a job as a housekeeper in 1957 Paris. Her employer, a brilliant young flautist named Raphael, falls hard for her, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he finds her "impassive" and "impenetrable." Hard-eyed Saffie seems to sleepwalk through life, and as if in a dream, she and Raphael marry and have a son, Emil. When Raphael sends her off to have his flute repaired one day, he little suspects what he's setting in motion. In András, the instrument maker, Saffie finds a damaged twin. Both are victims of the horrible experiment of Hitler's war: German Saffie has endured not only rape and torture but also the knowledge of her own family's Nazi sympathies. Hungarian Jew András has lost his family and his country. The two embody the horrors that Europeans visited on each other in the middle of the 20th century. And they covertly embark on a five-year affair, during which their love comes to be sorely tested by the Algerian war for independence from France.

Huston's prose is cool, opaque, ironic, and intensely romantic. Her style and her story both owe a great debt to Milan Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being, a debt she seems to acknowledge explicitly: "Saffie is crushed, stifled, petrified by the... how to put it... the unbearable tenuousness of the moment... Dizzy with inexistence, she clutches at András's arm--and he, misunderstanding, sets Emil down in a chair on the café terrace--turns to his lover--takes her in his arms and begins to waltz with her... Ah! Thanks to András, the hideous unreality of the world has been held at bay once again, movement has turned back into true movement, instead of immobility in disguise." Kundera's preoccupation with Nietzsche's concept of the eternal return is clearly at work here too: The past, Huston warns us loud and clear, is never past. --Claire Dederer --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Drenched in irony, and very French in sensibility, Huston's U.S. debut must overcome an unfortunate beginning before it gallops away with the reader's mesmerized attentionAbut once underway, it fascinates with its blend of cynicism and romance, and its dramatization of the roles of accident and fate, and of evil and injustice, in human history. Initially, one must accept a far-fetched plot: that when world-famous flutist Raphael Lepage sees Saffie, the young German woman who answers an ad for a maid to clean his luxurious Paris apartment, he immediately succumbs to overwhelming love and soon afterward marries herAdespite the fact that she is as emotionless as a zombie, does not even remotely return his affections and is anathema to his beloved mother, who has never forgiven the Nazi occupation 20 years before. Even the birth of a son does not thaw Saffie's cold indifference, which persists until she meets Andr s, a Hungarian-Jewish refugee who repairs musical instruments; the mutual recognition of irresistible passion releases all her emotions. During their liaisons in his little shop in the Marais, Andr s tells Saffie about the destruction of his family in Budapest, and she reveals her own traumatic memories of WWIIAthe Allied bombings, her father's complicity with the campaign of annihilation, her mother's brutal rape by conquering Russian soldiers. Even as their affair unfolds, however, the horrifying events of the 1940s are being repeated in Algeria and France, as FLN terrorists strike back at French atrocities. In the end, innocence must die, as, Huston reminds us, it always has and always will. While Huston often overwrites and sometimes indulges in arch asides, once she establishes her story's central ironies, the narrative achieves a relentless velocity. A scene in which both Saffie and Andr s recall separate incidents in which poorly buried bodies erupt through the earth, drenching the soil with blood, is a shattering reminder of the endless cycle of human violence. Canadian-born Huston has lived in France for more than three decades, where her books (seven novels plus nonfiction works) are bestsellers. BOMC and QPB selections; paperback rights to Vintage. (Oct.) FYI: The Mark of an Angel won the French Prix des Lectrices d'ELLE and the Prix des Librairies in Canada, and is shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt in France. Huston's other awards include the Prix Contrepoint, the Prix Goncourt Lyceen and the Canadian Governor General's Award in French.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
The setting of 'The Mark of the Angel' is in Paris, 1957. It's a story of two people from different backgrounds (she is German, he is French) who meet and marry. But the recent past of World War II and the current rising violence, which eventually leads to the independence of Algeria, shape the attitude of these two characters into a disastrous climax.
The seemingly simple style of this story could make some readers believe that it's just a 'pulp romance' novel -- there are, however, layers of psychological levels to the characters and a complexity in the way setting and storyline are entwined together that make this novel far from being simplistic or a 'pulp romance' novel. Saffie, the female protagonist, is a difficult character to read -- and agreeably unpleasant at times -- and that's why makes the story even more intriguing; we are not dealing with nice and 'normal' cardboard cut-out characters, where everything is beautiful and everyone holds hands at the end of the story.
This book is not a lovely love story, but a character study on how war tears down the fabric of human nature, how it effects everyone for years to come, even for genertations to come -- it a story about confusion, betrayal, jealousy and revenge. Nancy Huston has done a wonderful at showing how difficult it can be to deal with the world around us, and how sometimes human behaviour can be misinterpreted by those who live in a protected world.
'The Mark of the Angel' is a disturbing tale of passion and survival, which makes the reader reflect on the humand condition long after the book has been read. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Fine Writing from Nancy Huston Jan. 1 2001
I have a confession to make. I have not had enough tragedy in my life. After reading a book like this I dwell on how soft my life has been and how guilty I feel about it.
The story line here is quite simple. Woman marries man for wrong reasons. Woman then meets man who fulfills inner needs and falls in love. Woman has child with husband but remains in love with the man she has met. Man finds out. Man kills child and everyones life is ruined.
But that is not what this book is really about. It is about the incredible inner struggles that these characters go through, the unspeakable horrors of the wars in Europe and the unexplainable things that humans do to each other.
Main character Saffie acts a bit strange at first. But we understand why when we learn what she has experienced. Same for her lover Andras. I personally struggled with what these people had seen. I became introsepctive and self critical as I pondered on the lives of those who lived through the Holocaust and Algerian cleansing periods.
Well written and fast moving, Huston has done a great job in displaying emotion and courage. Read this book to learn a little about these characters and a lot about yourself.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Very French, very extravagant. Nov. 29 2000
Like so many other things one associates with the ultra-romantic French national character, this book, too, betrays both an extravagance of emotion and the desire here to dramatize (and incorporate in the book) every possible personal and political trauma of the last half-century. Saffie, the main character, is almost literally a ghost, so traumatized as a German Aryan "victim" of the Nazi horror that she cannot function at all as a human. Her husband Raphael, a flutist, is so busy making beautiful music that he never has a clue about his wife's 5-year affair. Their child, unlike any kid I've ever known (!), never, ever blabs a word about Andras, the other man in his mother's life, to his father, though he sees Andras every time his mother does--very frequently--and refers to him as Apu. Andras, a Jewish Hungarian Holocaust victim, is also intimately involved in the Algerian fight for independence from France. Added to this whole sticky pie are the additional heart-tuggers--the desire of Andras to educate Saffie about minorities and about German history, her inability to experience maternal feelings for her child, her rejection by her mother-in-law, her perfect housekeeping and gourmet cooking, and a completely unrealistic breakdown by Raphael at a critical moment. A real melodrama that tries too hard to be "significant" by pushing every emotional button known to man, with the result that it is sentimental, over-the-top melodrama.
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By A Customer
I force fed all my friends copies of Fugitve Pieces by Anne Michaels, another Canadian writing on a similar theme. One of them came back with The Mark of the Angel saying she preferred it.
She may be right. I burned through this book. I stayed in on a picture perfect Sydney day to read it while images of the degeneration in Israel/Palestine flash on the TV screen. A theme of the book is that all the tragedies and happinesses have happened to someone before and that they will happen again is at once liberating and depressing. The book succeeds on 2 fronts. Love and political conflict.
It captures the dynamics of the hopes and expectations we bring to new loves and relationships with some candour but not too cynically.
And, it describes with surgical precision how political conflicts escalate and polarise. How the victims carry emotional baggage. How we fight the last war over and over.
Wonderful imagery without pretension or self indulgence. The ending built up so that I was tense as I flew through the later pages.
I also learned more about recent French history than I knew before. Kind of useful in understanding how the world works.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, painful
A story of forbidden love in post-war Paris between two people damaged in different ways by the Holocaust--you've read it before. Read more
Published on Jan. 10 2002 by J. Marren
1.0 out of 5 stars This book is not what it seems
If you are someone who enjoys inteligent, interesting, believable naratives... If you are a fan of Alice Hoffman, Ursula Hegi, Jane Hamilton, Rebecca Wells... Read more
Published on April 16 2001
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful!
What beautiful and unique writing! Nancy Huston is a great French-Canadian writer whose work I will be looking forward to reading in the future. Read more
Published on Jan. 23 2001 by CoffeeGurl
4.0 out of 5 stars The Mark Left On Me By Nancy Huston
I read this book with great interest, and was quite moved and captivated. The book starts and ends grimly, but there is no other hope for Saffie, as we learn of her past. Read more
Published on Nov. 27 2000 by Melinda Lucas
4.0 out of 5 stars Memorable and very well written
The structure and style of this novel are engaging and effective. The interjections of the narrator force the reader to focus not only on Saffie's story, but to pull back from... Read more
Published on Oct. 16 2000 by K. Denny
2.0 out of 5 stars Would've been good if main character hadn't been a head case
I guess my main problem with this novel was the main character, Saffie. She was too psychotic to appreciate. Read more
Published on Oct. 12 2000
3.0 out of 5 stars Pretty good
I hadn't intended to read this book, even though it kept popping up on my recommendations list. A coworker brought it to me, however, with lots of praise, and I wasn't... Read more
Published on Oct. 5 2000 by Jody M. Keene
5.0 out of 5 stars An Original & Remarkable Story
This author is from France. The book was such a bestseller there that it was translated for the States. Need I say more? Read more
Published on Oct. 2 2000 by Michael J. Armijo
5.0 out of 5 stars The Mark of a Gifted Writer
Huston manages to create a mural of the failure and pain of being human in the arc of human history. Read more
Published on June 9 2000 by Beezley
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