Book Review: Lilac Girls

If you liked The Alice Network, you’ll love this beautifully written, multi-perspective view into an event that crossed continents.

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

I celebrated my birthday during the state-wide stay-at-home order for coronavirus precautions, but a friend surprised me by dropping a package on my doorstep and singing “Happy Birthday” from my driveway. Knowing I couldn’t get enough WWII books, she gave me this one. It made my whole week.

Cover Description

“Caroline Ferriday is a former Broadway actress and liaison to the French consulate whose life is forever changed when Hitler’s army invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France. An ocean away from Caroline, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, sinks deeper into her role as a courier for the underground resistance movement. In Germany, Herta Oberheuser, a young doctor, answers an ad for a government medical positions—only to find herself trapped in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power.

The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women. Their stories across continents, as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten.”

Characters

Caroline is not your typical New York socialite. She works tirelessly, for no pay, to help those in need, and her stubbornness accomplishes the impossible. Kasia begins the story as an innocent teen, pining for her first love, wishing for life to be normal again after the Nazis and Russians invade. The strength which helps her survive Ravensbrück later makes it difficult to let go of the rage she harbors within. Herta is a woman in a man’s world, striving to pursue her passion of surgery, forbidden to women, when she is swept up in the horrors of the Nazis concentration camp. This trifecta of perspectives provides a global, yet personal, view of a forgotten part of history.

For me, the most interesting perspective was Herta’s. I haven’t read too many books that include the perspective of the Nazis themselves. Despite having been indoctrinated into the Nazi mindset, her initial attitude toward the war is one of cold ambivalence. She only wants to become a surgeon, and when she first witnesses life at Ravensbrück, she plans to take the next train home. Circumstances “force” her to stay.

Her descent into the wickedness of that place kept me turning pages long after bedtime. She even found the Nazis’ new religion “convenient,” as it helped soothe her rioting conscience. No matter how much Herta rationalized her “patriotic” experiments, her “only chance” to become a surgeon, her body knew the truth. Plagued by sleepless nights, Anxiety, Depression, and engaging in self-harm, she is proof that evil takes its toll not only on the victims, but the perpetrators.

Plot

I love that this story does not end with the end of the war. It continues to describe Kasia’s—everybody’s—difficulty in readjusting to “normal” life. Kasia does not rejoice at the end of the war, for Poland trades Nazis for Soviets, an “even trade,” as she calls it. She wrestles with her guilt and her hate until the last page, unable to relate to her loved ones because of it.

Overall, the plot moves slow enough to make the horrors of WWII sink in, but fast enough to make you check the clock and think “When did it get that late?” It is a story of justice, reconciliation, and moving on.

Writing Style

I have been reading a lot of sparse prose in YA lately, so Kelly’s detail-rich writing a refreshing change. Her descriptions made me feel like I could paint each scene, but were not so thick as to slow the plot. Beautiful work.

Conclusion

I never tire of WWII stories. There is always something new to learn, an angle unseen until I crack open another book. If you liked The Alice Network, you’ll love this beautifully written, multi-perspective view into an event that crossed continents.


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Anxious People

The last page arrives far too soon. Anxious People is a fine addition to the rest of his collection.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Honestly, you should skip this review and buy the book, but in case you need a little encouragement first, read on.

Cover Description

“Looking at real estate isn’t usually a life-or-death situation, but an apartment open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes a group of strangers hostage. The captives include a recently retired couple who relentlessly hunt down fixer-uppers to avoid the painful truth that they can’t fix up their own marriage. There’s a wealthy banker who has been too busy making money to care about anyone else and a young couple who are about to have their first child but can’t seem to agree on anything, from where they want to live to how they met in the first place. Add to the mix an eighty-seven-year-old woman who has lived long enough not to be afraid of someone waving a gun in her face, a flustered but still-read-to-make-a-deal real estate agent, and a mystery man who has locked himself in the apartment’s only bathroom, and you’ve got the worst group of hostages in the world.

“Each of them carries a lifetime of grievances, hurts, secrets, and passions that are ready to boil over. None of them is entirely who they appear to be. And all of them—the bank robber included—desperately crave some sort of rescue.”

Characters

As usual, Bachman’s characters are the perfect blend of quirky and deep. With wry humor, he captures humanity in all its messiness. I love that he doesn’t write about single characters, but entire communities. Each person has their own odd behaviors that are only understood when they reveal who they truly are. Each person impacts the person next to them. These characters don’t jump off the page, they tear the pages right from the binding. Peculiar as they are, everyone can say they know someone like them.

Plot

The plot alternates timelines and perspectives to reveal both the police investigation and the hostage’s situation. He weaves various small threads into a complete narrative, with every minor detail having a significant impact and no loose threads left at the end. The mystery of what happened to the bank robber is compelling, but the characters themselves are so entertaining, I would have finished this book even if the plot were a bunch of strangers watching paint dry.

Writing Style

Fredrik Backman is one of my favorite authors. Clichés flee the room when he enters it. His descriptions are unique and on-point. I’m not ashamed to admit that I paused my reading several times just to admire a sentence or phrase. He effortlessly captures the deep hurts people carry, the small ways they show their feelings even when they can’t say, “I love you” out loud. Every quirk has a reason, and even the vainest of characters is more than superficial.

Conclusion

I rarely review Fredrik Backman’s books because he is one of those authors whose books I will read without even scanning the description first. The last page arrives far too soon. His work has an addictive quality that leaves a lasting emotional impression. Anxious People is a fine addition to the rest of his collection.

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Anxious People

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