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“I’m always conflicted,” Charlotte continued.  She was rambling, she knew, but the answer to Jack’s question was not a short or simple one.  “I mean, I’m the descendant of Holocaust victims.  My mom’s whole family died here.  But when I came back, I found that the truth was so much more nuanced than I ever expected.  The people you wanted to call evil had humanity and the heroes were flawed.  There was gray everywhere.  That’s what I found so appealing about the work.  The broad brushstrokes of history were misleading.  I really felt that by studying and recasting things in a finer light, I was doing more of a service to the truth and to those who died.  But as for Roger…”  She paused, turning to face him.  “It’s too soon to tell, I think.”

(from The Things We Cherished, page 105)

The Things We Cherished is the fifth book I’ve read by Pam Jenoff, and she hasn’t let me down yet.  Each of Jenoff’s novels tells a unique story somehow connected to World War II.  In The Things We Cherished, Jenoff takes readers back and forth in time as her main character defends a man accused of war crimes.

Set mainly in 2009, the book follows attorney Charlotte Gold, who abandoned a budding career at The Hague to become a public defender in Philadelphia who deals mostly with troubled youth.  After a sudden request from the man who broke her heart, Charlotte finds herself overseas and working with his brother, Jack, on a war crimes trial involving Roger Dykmans, a financier accused of informing the Nazis about his older brother’s plan to save thousands of children from the Theresienstadt concentration camp, resulting in their deaths.  When Roger refuses to help Jack and Charlotte produce evidence to prove he is innocent, the pair go off in search of a valuable anniversary clock that somehow holds the key to Roger’s story.  Their rush to build a case pushes them closer together, and Charlotte learns why Jack and his brother, Brian, parted ways years ago and that they both must move beyond the wounds of their pasts.

In alternating chapters, Jenoff takes readers back in time to follow the history of the clock, from its creation in Bavaria in 1903 by a farmer looking to escape the pogroms against the Jews by selling his beautifully crafted clock and moving to America with his pregnant wife to East Berlin in 1961 during the erection of the Berlin wall, when the clock is stolen by a young woman running away from her drunk mother, a dead-end life, and political oppression.  Although I really enjoyed reading about the history of the timepiece and the troubled times that each of the owners endured, I kept wondering how these individual stories were going to be connected to Roger and the alleged betrayal of his brother, Hans.  I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between this aspect of the story and E. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, which deals with the trials and tribulations of the various people who own a particular accordion and the accordion’s travels over many years.

The Things We Cherished was an enjoyable read, if any novel dealing with the Holocaust can be considered such.  I liked Charlotte, who has a big heart when it comes to her clients but feels lost in terms of relationships and her career.  However, Jenoff barely scratched the surface when it came to developing the characters of Charlotte and Jack.  Charlotte is the main character, but she takes a back seat to the historical aspect of the story, which seems to be Jenoff’s passion.  It didn’t bother me that Roger’s tale of love, loss, and betrayal in Breslau during the war took center stage because I found it very interesting, as I did with the rest of the stories centered on the anniversary clock.  But the movement from the past — where readers are placed right into the emotional turmoil — to the present — where information about the Holocaust is simply stated by characters and Charlotte and Jack’s interactions have little time to develop before readers are moved back into the past — would have been more effective had Charlotte’s story been infused with the same intensity.

Still, I found The Things We Cherished hard to put down, and I feel that it gave me a good sense of what it was like living in Germany before, during, and after the war and the pressure endured by the attorneys working on war crimes trials as they rush to achieve justice before it is too late.  It’s definitely a novel worth checking out if you are interested in WWII history.

Check out my reviews of other books by Pam Jenoff:

Almost Home
A Hidden Affair

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Things We Cherished from the author and Doubleday 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.

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