Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
Ballentine Books, 2016. Hardcover, 496 pages.
Lilac Girls is based on the true story of American Caroline Ferriday, a socialite in 1930s ad 1940s New York. While this may seem unusual, as many books set in this time frame focus on military aspects of the build-up to and during World War II, it is actually just a different angle from which to view these events. Caroline worked in the French Embassy in New York as a volunteer. She was there to see the struggle of French citizens trying to head home and/or learn about their loved ones. She organized care packages to send to children in French orphanages. And she loved a French man. But it was what she did after the war that Ferriday is most remembered for.
Told concurrently to Caroline’s story is that of Kasia and Herta. Kasia Kuzmerick was a Polish girl with German ancestry on her mother’s side. When the Nazis overtook Poland, she joined the resistance and soon found herself struggling to stay alive in Ravensbrück alongside her sister, mother, and one of her friends. Later, the story turns to describing how she copes upon her release from the camp. Doctor Herta Oberheuser, meanwhile, first struggled to find work to support her parents. This leads to the camp at Ravensbrück and at first she cannot believe what is asked of her. However, she knows it is a job that must be done unless she wants her family to starve. While there, she befriends Kasia’s mother despite their different statuses. When Kasia and Herta’s paths cross, it is not the way either expected, as Kasia becomes one of the experimental “rabbits” at the camp.
The three characters do not at first seem to be fully connected. Herta’s role in Kasia’s life comes out in the first couple hundred pages. Caroline’s entry to their story comes after the war, nearly at the book’s end. I cannot explain how without spoiling the plot. However, each has a similar struggle: they must overcome obstacles that test their values. And each does so in their own way.
The writing in this novel frequently tugged at my heart. Caroline wanted to do what was best but also loved with her whole heart, even when it hurt. Kasia went from young patriot to struggling to overcome her experiences. Herta went from wrestling with morals to being “broken” by Nazi ideas mostly just to practice her chosen profession. Sadly, there were many heartbreaking moments with each character, however when the struggles were overcome one could rejoice with the characters. And the words flowed well, with many descriptive elements.
This novel is Kelly’s first. She was inspired to write the novel after hearing about Ferriday’s life while touring Ferriday’s mansion. Needless to say, Ferriday’s work goes more in-depth than I presented it here because to say more would spoil part of the story. To learn more about the story behind the novel, check out Kelly’s website. There is even a pictorial tour of the sites mentioned in the novel.
Do you think you will read this novel? If so, please time know what you think afterwards. The comments can be a good place to discuss some of the plot.
I received an advanced reader copy of this novel from the publisher for review. This novel will be released tomorrow, 4/5/16.
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