I was rather disappointed with this book, and I think part of it definitely had to do with my expectations. Leslie Maitland is a journalist, and she wrote this book to document her family's history and to chronicle her search for her mother's long lost love, Roland. As a result, I think I may have been expecting something more along the lines of The Lost or Annie's Ghosts, books that involved their authors digging into their family history (and secrets in one case) and telling the reader about all the research they had to do, the places this research led them before they were finally able to piece together a picture of the past. In these cases, the research process was just as interesting as the actual backstory. Unfortunately, all the research in this book takes place behind the scenes, mostly to confirm her mother's story or to find out what happened to certain people that had made a difference in her mom's lives, and the reader for the most part gets the story.
Generally, this isn't a bad thing - after all, I read novels because I like a story, but this story dragged on too much and seemed to be unsure of what it wanted to be. Am I reading an epic love story? It didn't feel like it, it felt more like young teenagers discovering their first love, and its importance was naturally inflated over their lives after other relationships disappointed them. And I didn't even find the lovers that likable, especially Roland. Is it a story of a family's escape from the Holocaust and the Nazis? It works a bit more in this way but there is so much detail that it bogged down the actual book, and I couldn't even keep track of which maid was which. Janine, the author's mother, was a teenager when she and her family fled to France's Alsace region from Germany, and she was from a well to do family with resources and relatives in many places. While many well-to-do Jewish families perished in the Holocaust, Janine was lucky in that her parents recognized the threat early enough to apply for visas and get out. It also helped that they had business relations in France, thus giving them options and making the idea of packing up and leaving a bit easier to face. Once the Germans take back the Alsace area, they flee to other areas of France before finally being on one of the last ships to leave for Morrocco and then Cuba before finally ending up in the States.
The thing is that despite the fact that she is fleeing the Nazis, it's hard to always sympathize with Janine. She is divided between loyalty to her family and her love for Roland at various times throughout the book and her life, even after the war is over. There's a bit of the melodramatic teenager to her, going as far as to yell at some fellow Jewish refugees for making negative comments about France (which they believed could have done more to protect and help the Jewish refugee community). Obviously, Janine had only an inkling of what Hitler was doing, but it's hard not to see her as a brat when she is so depressed about leaving her boyfriend when she is one of only a few to escape. The author even acknowledges that her family was rather fortunate since they had the resources to flee, used those resources and had family across the western hemisphere to fall back on. Even the majority of the extended family survived with one aunt and her three children being the exception. Obviously there is more to the Holocaust than just the labor and death camps, and the term survivors applies to more than simply people that survived the concentration camps (in fact we just had a survivor speak to us for Day of Remembrance two weeks ago and he had survived as child hidden on a farm in the Netherlands). In fact, I think it's important to also tell these stories but this book just seemed oddly detailed about too many things, making it hard to really get wrapped up in it. There were some absolutely fascinating French people that helped the family whose stories I was much more interested in.
Oddly enough, and this may be because I forced myself to sit down and finish the book, the story actually picked up for me once they were in New York. Despite my interest in the Holocaust, I prefered the part of the book that described Janine's life as an American housewife in the '50s. Her marriage is troubled and difficult, but based on her daughter's descriptions of some of her mother's behaviors, especially early in the marriage, I can't help but wonder how much of that was due to her mother's actions which would set the stage for how her husband reacted to her and behaved himself.
Overall, I wouldn't recommend this. If you're looking for a narrative about France under German occupation, then this book has parts of that, but there must be better more comprehensive ones; if it's a great love story, then this is certainly not it; a story about researching and discovering more about one's family and finding lost people? Not really the focus. Really, I think I'd be more likely to recommend it to someone interested in marriage in the '50s than some with a desire to learn about WWII. The other part that was good when Maitland described her own trips to Europe, and the ways that Germany and specifically the town her mother was from was trying to make reparations and acknowledge what they had done. If the book had been cut down by a hundred pages, I think it would have been much better but as it is, it was a struggle to get through, and the parts I enjoyed were too late into the book for me to inflict this on anyone else.