I have been interested in the Holocaust and World War II since I was about 8 years old and have read quite a few novels, fictionalized accounts and nonfiction books on the topics as a result. I have certainly taken breaks at various points but always tend to come back to the topic. It also means there are certain types of books I am less likely to pick up based on previous experience. While I liked Sarah’s Key on initial read because of the view into the French and the Holocaust, it also has made me shy away from dual narrative Holocaust stories. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the framing of a woman realizing she needed to change her love life as a result of doing research into the Holocaust (I am doing the novel a bit of an injustice but it’s hard to put a Holocaust story side by side with a modern day setting). As a result, Lilac Girls wasn’t a novel I was planning up until a review made me realize that the three perspectives were from contemporaries, viewing the war through different lenses, rather than a modern day and historical one.
Having finished the novel, I think my first instinct was right. Something about this one didn’t quite work for me, though I appreciated the look at the survivors of the Ravensbruck medical experiments, referred to as the Rabbits. I also liked the idea that the novel spanned more than a decade past the war, showing the aftermath of the war, and the difficulty of returning to a normal life, though the execution led to some other issues for the novel. One of the more tragic things about the war and the Holocaust was the way the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc treated its citizens who survived German camps, viewing the survivors as potentially compromised by the enemy (apparently, you can only be a hero if you die), thus stacking misery on top of misery.
There are two things working against the novel for me. While I mention that I think it was good that Lilac Girls explored the time after the war, between having three character views and spanning more two decades, the chapters jumped forward in time too quickly. I would have preferred more details about life at the KZ, or during the war. The other issue is that I felt Caroline did not fit well into this novel, or at least the Caroline that Kelly created. While her story intersects with the Rabbits post-war, during the war, she is in the US, doing charity work and fundraising for French orphans and otherwise trying to help do her part. Caroline was a historical figure, and from what I can gather based on the afterword, she did some impressive work, at least trying to do something while many others turned a blind eye. The problem is that most of her story ends up being wrapped around a doomed love affair with a married man, and the motivations and actions never made sense to me. I didn’t understand how he suddenly became the great love of her life, and basically most of her interactions with humans felt portrayed in an odd, not quite real way – I just didn’t buy them as a couple, or none of her friendships made sense. I would have preferred having Caroline portrayed as a woman who was happily devoted to her work rather than feeling like all her chapters were about her moping about a guy or the fact that she missed her chance to have children. To me, as much as she may have attempted to sacrifice and give up to help others, she always felt like a debutante dabbling in charity.
Herta Oberheuser, a German doctor working at the camp and conducting the experiments, is the other historical person used as a character point of view, while Kasia, the final character perspective, is inspired by a mix of the women who survived the medical experiments conducted on young Polish women at Ravensbruck. Herta’s father is actually a decent human being but his daughter has fallen hook, line and sinker for the propaganda of the Third Reich. She wants to be a doctor in a sexist society but supports the system unquestioningly – there are a few moments where it seems things are going further than she wants but she is very much a cog in the system and there was never any question about whether she would gain a conscience, and not simply go along with everything. She is intelligent but in a cold and calculating manner, letting her rationalize all her actions.
Kasia was the character whose chapters I most looked forward to, and in addition to surviving day to day life at the concentration camp and the medical experiments, she is weighed down by guilt. She blames herself because her mother and sister were both caught up when she was arrested for working in the underground, and she never lets go of this burden, despite assurances from everyone around her.
Overall, this novel had several pieces that were interesting and I really appreciate the take on a different part of World War II, but the three stories Kelly wanted to tell didn’t come together well, and instead of coming together to create something stronger than its part, they weakened each other. Caroline, the historical figure, may very well deserve more attention to her story, but by juxtaposing her love life against the story of a concentration camp victim (even they have a later in life connection), it only diminished her. The novel either needed to be longer or take up a smaller scope to truly do everyone justice.