Three women, haunted by the past and the secrets they hold
Set at the end of World War II, in a crumbling Bavarian castle that once played host to all of German high society, a powerful and propulsive story of three widows whose lives and fates become intertwined—an affecting, shocking, and ultimately redemptive novel from the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Hazards of Good Breeding.
Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once-grand castle of her husband’s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resister murdered in the failed July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.
First Marianne rescues six-year-old Martin, the son of her dearest childhood friend, from a Nazi reeducation home. Together, they make their way across the smoldering wreckage of their homeland to Berlin, where Martin’s mother, the beautiful and naive Benita, has fallen into the hands of occupying Red Army soldiers. Then she locates Ania, another resister’s wife, and her two boys, now refugees languishing in one of the many camps that house the millions displaced by the war.
As Marianne assembles this makeshift family from the ruins of her husband’s resistance movement, she is certain their shared pain and circumstances will hold them together. But she quickly discovers that the black-and-white, highly principled world of her privileged past has become infinitely more complicated, filled with secrets and dark passions that threaten to tear them apart. Eventually, all three women must come to terms with the choices that have defined their lives before, during, and after the war—each with their own unique share of challenges.
Written with the devastating emotional power of The Nightingale, Sarah’s Key, and The Light Between Oceans, Jessica Shattuck’s evocative and utterly enthralling novel offers a fresh perspective on one of the most tumultuous periods in history. Combining piercing social insight and vivid historical atmosphere, The Women in the Castle is a dramatic yet nuanced portrait of war and its repercussions that explores what it means to survive, love, and, ultimately, to forgive in the wake of unimaginable hardship.
The Women in the Castle opens with a prologue in which Germany's academic elite have gathered in celebration, and we are introduced to Marianne von Lingenfels and the von Lingenfels castle, a charming relic that has been used only for annual parties but that will soon become a refuge and a lifeline for the wives of the men sequestered in Albrecht von Lingenfels's study plotting the downfall of Adolph Hitler. Seven years and one failed assassination attempt later, World War II has just ended, and Marianne, now a traitor's widow, makes it her mission to find the wives and children of her husband's co-conspirators, heroes in her eyes, and bring them to safety.
Though she is only able to find two, Ania, a woman she'd never met, and Benita, the young wife of Marianne's childhood best friend, she gathers them and their children and brings them to the castle, where she hopes to keep them safe in the dangerous post-war climate, and where she hopes they will all be able to rebuild their lives together. None of these women have been untouched by the war, although Marianne, as a wealthy member of the aristocracy, has not had to suffer the physical depravities or face the daily fight for survival that the others have, and she soon realizes that coaxing these women into forming a new family with her will not be as easy as she'd hoped. Through food shortages, illness, the Russian and US occupations, and the bands of discharged soldiers and former prisoners roaming the countryside, Marianne desperately attempts to hold them all together, but she is eventually forced to admit that she can't force her fellow survivors to follow her path, that she must let them each come to terms with the war and their roles in it in their own way, and that they must each determine their own future.
Their lives had become entwined during such a strange time--without context, severed from the past, before the future. A time dictated by basic needs. What did they really know of each other?
There is so much buzz surrounding this book that I couldn't wait to read it, and I did absolutely love the first half of it. As these three women came together and their experiences before and during the war were slowly revealed, I could not put the book down. But then the story fast forwarded five years and lost the tension that came with the uncertainty of the war's immediate aftermath. The characters started doing things I didn't like, some true natures were revealed, and I found myself not caring about them as much. By the end, when the story fast forwarded again to 1991 and the focus shifted to their children, I was pretty much skimming to get to the end.
But I am in the minority on this one, and despite my issues with the second half, this book has a couple of things going for it that really set it apart from other WWII fiction I've read, namely that it's about Germans rather than Brits or Americans. In most of the other books, the war ends and the story is over. But in Germany, the story is far from over. Beaten, occupied, and punished, not only do the German people have to claw themselves back to some semblance of normalcy, they also have to face the atrocities that, even if they were not active participants, were committed with their knowledge. And there are as many ways of doing that as there are shades of humanity, from denial or defiance to atonement to crippling guilt and everything in between.
She saw the histories of the people passing by like x-rays stamped on their faces--ugly, mutinous tracings of dark and light: a woman who had ratted out a neighbor, a man who had shot children, a soldier who had held his dying friend in his arms. Yet here they were, carrying groceries, holding children's hands, turning their collars up against the wind. As if their moments of truth--the decisions by which they would be judged and would judge themselves--hadn't already come and passed.
Even though I didn't love it as much as I'd hoped, this is well worth the read for insight into the German perspective on the end of the war and for some poignant observations and descriptions, both beautiful and ugly, on coming to terms with the reign of the Nazis and the genocide of the Jews and how a country moved on. For the view of the war, the Holocaust, and its aftermath from such a different and necessary lens, I consider The Women in the Castle a must-read for fans of World War II fiction.
My Rating: 3.5 Stars out of 5
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