Saturday, February 04, 2017

719 (2017 #17). Lilac Girls


by Martha Hall Kelly

Reading this book was difficult.  The topic is a good one, not often covered in historical fiction, though hard in itself to read about.  But it is the author's first novel, and it shows.  It reminds me a lot of Ruta Sepetys' Between Shades of Gray, which I read and reviewed about four-and-a-half years ago.

The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of three women, over a twenty year period, from 1939 to 1959.  When the book opens, Caroline Ferriday is a wealthy socialite who lives in New York City and works at the French Consulate.  Herta Oberheuser is a young German doctor who longs to perform surgery and escape a miserable home life.  Kasia Kuzmerick is a teenager in Lublin, Poland, with an older sister named Zuzanna, also a doctor.

As World War II begins and progresses, the lives of these women begin to intersect.  Kasia becomes active in the Polish resistance, and she, her sister, her mother Halina are arrested by the Nazis and ultimately sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp for women.  Meanwhile, Herta has become a doctor there, initially giving lethal injections, but ultimately performing medical experiments on the legs of prisoners - including Kasia and her sister.  These women became known as the "Ravensbrück Rabbits," because their damaged legs forced them to hop around the camp, and because they had been treated like laboratory rabbits.

Caroline's story finally connects to these two after the war.  She is instrumental in bringing the Ravensbrück victims to the United States for treatment, and helping to track down Herta.  But in Part 1 of the book (the first 26 chapters, more than half of the book), she is pining away after a married French actor named Paul, who (because of his Jewish wife), also winds up in a French concentration camp.   This ridiculous romance, coupled with frivolous talk of fashion and fundraising functions and such, made me dislike Caroline and want to skim through these chapters.

Herta was also completely unlikable, despite the author's weak attempt to come up with a (rather disgusting) backstory for her, trying, I suppose, to explain why Herta became so focused on advancing her career that she could conveniently overlook the humanity of the patients.

Kasia was not much better.  She whines and complains through much of the book, although her youth is a plausible excuse at the beginning, in contrast to her older sister.  Kasia seems to have an unnatural attachment to the memory of her not-so-sainted mother, who disappears at Ravensbruck.  It was hard to have much sympathy for this passive-aggressive character, despite the terrible ordeal she went through - other survivors of the same procedures did not behave so badly.

So I got to the end of the book, thinking - meh.  And then I read the author's note.  I thought all the main characters were invented.  I was surprised to learn that Caroline and Herta were real people (as were their parents), while Kasia and Zuzanna were loosely based on two of the real Ravensbrück Rabbits.  Members of the cruel staff of Ravensbrück, guards and doctors, and many of the prisoners,were also real.

Paul, however, was not.  I think it's a travesty that debut author Martha Hall Kelly felt the need to create a (lousy) romance for a woman whose character didn't need it.  Kelly said in the author's note (on page 482) that it was to give Caroline "more of a personal connection to France and to dramatize the events happening there," but I felt it was completely unnecessary and distracting.

The book cover was also distracting and misleading.  Kelly was inspired to write the book by a magazine article about the lilacs in the gardens at Caroline's Connecticut home, and her favorite flowers also inspired the title.  From reading the book's blurbs, one might think the three women on the cover are the three main characters - Caroline, Kasia, and Herta - but I think it's supposed to be Caroline with Kasia and Zuzanna when the latter two stayed with her at her Connecticut home.

I made it through the book only because the subject of the Ravensbrück Rabbits was so interesting, as was Caroline Ferraday.  The book was successful in making me want to learn more about them, as Kelly obviously did a lot of research.  However, the plot structure and characterizations were so poor that I have to wonder if Kelly might have been better off telling the story as narrative nonfiction instead.  I think this debut author got some bad advice from her editors along the way.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This e-book was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

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