I’ve read some excellent historical fiction recently featuring strong female leads, and this novel had the potential to join those ranks. It’s certainly very popular on Goodreads, with many readers noting how it made them cry, so I feel rather like a grinch giving this a mild, three-star review, just on the positive side of a thumbs up. The story has potential and does feature interesting characters. Nevertheless, I was let down by the execution.
The novel alternates between two timelines. In pre-World War II Poland, Alina Dziak is hopelessly in love with her friend and neighbor Tomasz Slaski in the way only a 16-year-old girl can understand. When Tomasz goes off to college to study to become a doctor, they are both certain it’s a minor parting and that they are destined to be together. Unfortunately, the Germans invade Poland and change the courses of their lives forever. But, to quote the Princess Bride, “This is true love. You think this happens every day?” Alina feels sure that she and Tomasz will make their way back to each other, somehow.
In modern times, Alice Davis is struggling to keep it together. She has an autistic 7-year-old son, an over-achieving 10-year-old daughter, a workaholic husband, and a strained marriage. When we first meet her, she’s trying to manage her son Eddie’s tantrum in the middle of a grocery store, triggered by the discovery that the only brand of yogurt he’ll eat has changed their label. In the middle of the chaos, her mother is scolding her via text for being late. Alice is supposed to be visiting her grandmother, whom she refers to as Babcia in the hospital.
Babcia has suffered a stroke that has left her unable to communicate. Using an app designed for autistic children, she manages to tell Alice that she wants her to go to Poland for her and track down. . . something to do with Alice’s grandfather Tomasz. It’s all very vague, and seems like a fool’s errand. Plus, how can a mother of two small children, one of whom is autistic, take off on short notice when her brilliant scientist husband has no clue how to manage basic household tasks like heating up a bowl of soup?
Things I liked
The descriptions of Poland under early occupation by the Germans are interesting. I can’t say how factual or well-researched this novel is, but it describes the stages of occupation, including the reactions of the local people, from denial, to terror, to complicity. Alina’s parents struggle to survive while making difficult decisions. They hoard food even though it could mean their deaths if they are caught. When they receive notice that all but one of their children has to report for work camp, they are forced to decide whom to save. They do everything they can to provide the best possible chance of survival for their children, and it’s heartbreaking.
In the modern timeline, Alice’s challenges raising an autistic child are powerful, without making her seem like a saint. She definitely makes mistakes, and while her husband does come off like a jerk at times, they eventually reach a place of mutual respect. Both of them are right, and both are wrong.
Things that annoyed me
The writing is . . . uninspired. I can’t tell you how many times characters sigh in this book. It’s essentially the author’s shorthand for whenever someone has something difficult to say. Whether characters are talking about escaping Nazis, buying plane tickets, or heating up soup, they are forever sighing. I wish I had a digital version of this novel so I could do a proper count, but you’ll just have to take my word for it. The other shorthand is the raising of chins. Whenever someone is determined (be it Alina or Alice) they raise their chins. Free thesauri are available online, people! There’s really no excuse.
At times Alice is just insufferable. There’s one scene where she is trying to get a reluctant stranger to talk to her, so she stages a sit-in at the woman’s place of business. The whole time, I’m thinking, “Call the police on her!” (Eventually the woman does, to Alice’s utter shock.) In another instance, when Alice’s husband Wade finally does something positive, she can’t help but yell at him and say, “I told you so!” Have you ever heard of positive reinforcement, Alice? I suspect the author is trying to make Alice flawed, which I appreciate, but geez, there’s flawed and there’s unlikable.
The coming together of the two timelines somehow manages to be unrealistic and predictable at the same time. In 3 days and with minimal information, Alice and her Polish tour guide untangle a 75-year-old mystery that others hadn’t been able to resolve even though the internet had been around for decades. At the same time, the savvy reader is always a step ahead of them.
This novel is entertaining and provides some worthwhile insights into occupied Poland. I would recommend it for younger readers who may not know much about World War II or the Holocaust, or to readers who like a sappy love story.
For my taste, it had potential, but the execution fell short. Sigh.