Posts Tagged ‘alyson richman’

grand central

Source: Review copy from Berkley
Rating: ★★★★★

In those moments when she was alone, her body propped up in bed and a borrowed book she was using to study English on her lap, she saw her mother saying good-bye for the last time through a forced smile, and her father still holding on to her bag for a few more moments.  She didn’t want to look at those horrible photos in the paper and believe her parents could be amongst the piles off bodies or reduced to dark ash.  She wanted instead to look at the family photograph that sat on her nightstand and believe that they were still just as she had left them.  Father in his dark brown overcoat and stylish fedora, and Mother always with something warm and sweet in her hands.

(from “Going Home” by Alyson Richman, Grand Central, page 27)

Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion is a collection of 10 short stories that at some point bring readers to Grand Central Terminal in New York City on the same day in September 1945.  The stories are set shortly after the end of World War II, when refugees were creating new lives in America and soldiers were making their way home.  When I saw the list of authors and stories in this collection, I definitely couldn’t pass up the opportunity to read it.

  • “Going Home” by Alyson Richman (The Lost Wife)
  • “The Lucky One” by Jenna Blum (Those Who Save Us)
  • “The Branch of Hazel” by Sarah McCoy (The Baker’s Daughter)
  • “The Kissing Room” by Melanie Benjamin (The Aviator’s Wife)
  • “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Sarah Jio (Blackberry Winter)
  • “I’ll Walk Alone” by Erika Robuck (Call Me Zelda)
  • “The Reunion” by Kristina McMorris (Bridge of Scarlet Leaves)
  • “Tin Town” by Amanda Hodgkinson (22 Britannia Road)
  • “Strand of Pearls” by Pam Jenoff (The Kommandant’s Girl)
  • “The Harvest Season” by Karen White (The Time Between)

I don’t usually read short stories because I often feel like they end before the story takes off, so I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself satisfied by every one of these stories.  I couldn’t put this book down, and while I liked some stories more than others, in the week since I finished it, I still can’t decide which story was my favorite.

These stories are all unique in their subject matter, from a Holocaust survivor trying to get on with his life after losing his wife and daughters to a female pilot struggling with a different sort of grief and guilt, from a woman who dreads her soldier husband’s return to a young girl leaving her home in England to start a new life with her mother and GI husband in America.  Another story follows a young girl who travels alone from Shanghai to New York City to reunite with her father only to learn he’s not the man she thought he was, and Sarah McCoy lets readers know what happened to Hazel from The Baker’s Daughter, who joined the Lebensborn program.

Grand Central seems to perfectly capture the postwar atmosphere in a big city, with the chaos in the train station and the roller coaster of emotions within each character.  The changes in society, especially in regards to women and their romantic relationships and career aspirations, also feature prominently in some of these stories.  I was impressed not only by the character development in these stories but also by the ways in which the characters crossed paths with one another, which emphasizes how well this collection is structured.  If you love novels set during World War II or have loved novels by these authors in the past, you’ll definitely want to get your hands on a copy.

war challenge with a twist

Book 16 for the War Challenge With a Twist (WWII)

historical fiction challenge

Book 17 for the Historical Fiction Challenge

Disclosure: I received Grand Central from Berkley for review.

© 2014 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

Read Full Post »

the last van gogh

Source: Public library
Rating: ★★★★☆

And perhaps,when Vincent arrived that summer, he noticed that nascent stirring about me.  He saw that I was bursting to come to life again.  Twenty-one years of age, and for the first time since I was a young child, I wanted to dance in the garden and sing.

(from The Last Van Gogh, page 72)

The Last Van Gogh chronicles the last 70 days in the life of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh, set in the French village of Auvers-sur-Oise during the summer of 1890.  It was my book club’s May pick.  (I wasn’t able to attend last month’s meeting, so I can’t include everyone’s thoughts this time around.)  I was especially excited about this book because Alyson Richman’s novel The Lost Wife made my “Best of 2011” list.  Richman tells this story through the eyes of Marguerite Gachet, the 21-year-old daughter of the homeopathic doctor treating 37-year-old Vincent for depression and anxiety.  Marguerite was the subject of two portraits painted in the days before his suicide.

Just like her late mother, Marguerite feels trapped.  She’s basically a maid to her father and younger brother, Paul, and has little contact with the world outside their home, except to go shopping or attend Mass.  When Dr. Gachet isn’t creating his questionable tinctures and treating his own melancholy, he fancies himself a painter and an art collector and drops the names of his artist friends Cézanne and Pissarro as often as he can.  He doesn’t approve when Vincent voices a desire to paint Marguerite — and neither does Paul, whose failed attempts to secure attention and praise from Vincent strain his relationship with his sister.

The attraction between Marguerite and Vincent is intense and makes Marguerite feel alive for the first time.  Though her father is not likely to approve, Louise-Josephine (the illegitimate daughter of Marguerite and Paul’s “governess” who has been hidden away in the Gachet home since she was 14) gives her reason to hope.  However, Louise-Josephine’s chances of a happily-ever-after are as impossible as her own.

The Last Van Gogh develops slowly, giving readers a good understanding of the Gachet family’s dynamics and the obstacles in the way of Marguerite’s happiness.  Readers know from the beginning that this will be a tragic love story, but that didn’t stop me from hoping for a different ending for Vincent.  Once Vincent decides he needs to paint Marguerite, the pace of the narrative picks up, as Vincent’s poor financial and mental condition and the jealousy and possessiveness pervading the Gachet home conspire against them.

The novel shines in Richman’s descriptions of Vincent’s paintings, from the vivid colors to the symbolism, from his frenzied brush strokes to his burning need to paint whatever inspired him.  She does a wonderful job portraying him as a troubled genius, and one can understand why Marguerite would be drawn to him.  I really felt for Marguerite; she was so isolated, stifled, lonely, and desperately in need of freedom.

The Last Van Gogh is a lovely historical novel about art and inspiration, love and freedom, and loyalty and obligation.  I enjoyed reading about Richman’s inspiration for the book in the author’s note, and I couldn’t help but do some research of my own, searching for information about the Gachets and looking up the paintings Van Gogh painted in Auvers, particularly his portraits of Marguerite.  This is a novel that requires a bit of patience, but readers will be rewarded with rich descriptions of the artistic process and a heartfelt tale of first love.

historical fiction reading challenge

Book 18 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I borrowed The Last Van Gogh from the public library.

© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

Read Full Post »

He closes his eyes as he kisses her again, as if he were wishing something that was now impossible.  That, instead of being in the cold outside the Dresden barracks, he had transported my mother and him to the street of their first kiss, or to our apartment with its view of the Vltava.

In the cold, I think of the story Father had told us of how when the swans were frozen and trapped in the river, the men and women of Prague cut them out to free them.  And yet not a single one, when we were all rounded up for our transport, had come to help us.

(from The Lost Wife, page 169)

The Lost Wife is a beautifully tragic love story that begins at the end.  Josef Kohn is 85 years old and attending his grandson’s wedding rehearsal dinner when he realizes the bride’s grandmother is his true love, Lenka, the woman he married just before the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia.  The woman he never stopped thinking about, the woman he was told perished in Auschwitz.

Alyson Richman brings readers back to prewar Prague to show how Lenka, a young art student, and Josef, a young medical student, fell in love, and how it came to be that Josef ended up in New York and Lenka ended up in the Nazi ghetto of Terezín (or in German, Theresienstadt).  The Lost Wife is beautifully told, with Josef reflecting on the life he led without Lenka, how her ghost haunted him all through his second marriage, and Lenka describing her life during the war and how the story comes full circle to her granddaughter’s wedding and her reunion with the man she remembered with passion even when she was exhausted, starving, and near death.  Richman’s prose is simply beautiful, evoking romance and passion, horror and grief, and brilliantly describing Lenka’s artistic spirit.

But in order to survive in this foreign world, I had to teach myself that love was very much like a painting.  The negative space between people was just as important as the positive space we occupy.  The air between our resting bodies, and the breath in between our conversations, were all like the white of the canvas, and the rest [of] our relationship — the laughter and the memories — were the brushstrokes applied over time.  (page 319)

I have read dozens of WWII/Holocaust novels, but until The Lost Wife, I had not read about Terezín, which was considered a model camp and touted as a city created by Hitler especially for the Jews.  All of that was a lie, of course, and Lenka watches her parents and sister waste away as they work hard and subsist on rotten-smelling soup and bread made mostly from sawdust.  Jews arrive at the ghetto in droves, and disease and lice are rampant due to overcrowding.

Lenka is lucky to have been given a job as an artist, where she paints postcards that are bought by the German people or draws expansion plans for the ghetto.  There is resistance in the form of smuggled artwork that details the truth about conditions in the ghetto, and even music and opera are used as statements against the Nazi brutality.  Richman brings to life the stories of the real artists of Terezín — their courage and ability to put the quest for truth ahead of their safety and create works of art for a higher purpose.  These men and women even smuggled art supplies to the children of the ghetto, who were given the opportunity to draw and paint their hopes and dreams and the confusing changes in their lives.  Some of this artwork is on display in museums right now.

The Lost Wife emphasizes the difficult decisions people in love are forced to make during times of war and chaos and how true love lives on even when all hope has been lost.  There are scenes of tenderness, agony, and despair, and yet because Richman begins the story at the end, there is still hope.  I didn’t want to put the book down because it was so good, but at some points, it hurt too much to continue so I had to lay it down for a bit.  I cried several times while reading The Lost Wife, but to be so affected by an author’s writing and to fall so in love with the characters are, to me, signs of a fantastic book.

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Lost Wife from Berkley/Penguin for review purposes. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

Read Full Post »