Monday, May 27, 2019

Mistress of the Ritz--An Unlikely World War II French Resistance Figure

Although I have never previously read any books by the author of  Mistress of the Ritz, Melanie Benjamin, I do appreciate that her historical novels have focused on real women. All historical fiction requires research on the period, but a credible novel that deals with actual historical people needs additional research to establish what is known about those individuals.  So I salute writers who take this more difficult path.

I received a digital review copy of Mistress of the Ritz from publicist Ariel McCarter.  I decided to review this book because it deals with the French Resistance during World War II.


Protagonist Blanche Auzello seemed somewhat superficial to me as the novel opened.   She experiences growth as a result of meeting Lily, an eccentric political radical.  Blanche's transformation into a woman who wanted meaning in her life and felt compassion for others less fortunate, increased my interest in Mistress of the Ritz exponentially.

Then there is a scene in which Blanche commits what looks like a very foolish and self-destructive mistake.  A reviewer on Goodreads reacted very negatively to this moment in the plot and called Blanche "too stupid to live".  I had to evaluate this turning point differently when I found out from the Author's Note that Melanie Benjamin didn't imagine a disruptive incident at this point in Blanche's life.  Given the real historical consequences, the actual Blanche Auzello must have done something very similar.   Benjamin implies in a subsequent scene that Blanche had subconscious reasons for her actions.  I find this very likely.  There can be complex underlying motives for self-destructive behavior.   

A later event that seemed too coincidental to be believable was also revealed as something that actually happened in the Author's Note.  Blanche was lucky.   In fact, luck seemed to have played a major role throughout the real Blanche Auzello's life.

My favorite character in Mistress of the Ritz was Lily.  Lily is in the historical record, but almost nothing is known about her.  So she is very nearly a fictional character.  I found Lily's invented personality quite appealing, and would have read an entire novel about her.

I did feel ambivalent about this book mainly because of Blanche's marriage to Claude.  What bothered me most was Claude's need to control Blanche.  I think that his domineering attitude gave the ending of the book, which also came from real life, a certain tragic inevitability.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

A Savage Kultur: The Fictional Story of a Painting Seized by the Nazis

A Savage Kultur by Monique Roy is the second book that I am reviewing by this author.  I participated in the blog tour for her novel Across Great Divides on this blog here back in 2015.  I  received a free review copy of A Savage Kultur from Monique Roy and this is my honest review.


The last time a review on this blog dealt with a book on the theme of the Nazi looting of art it was Stolen Beauty by Laura Lico Albanese which I reviewed here.  That novel involved an actual famous legal suit brought by a descendant of the original owner to recover an iconic Gustav Klimt painting. 

The  painting at the center of A Savage Kultur, "The Lovers: The Poet's Garden IV" by Vincent Van Gogh isn't well-known and has an unknown fate. An image of Van Gogh's sketch of the painting is reproduced on the bottom section of the cover shown above. Yet all the characters in A Savage Kultur are fictional creations.  So Monique Roy has given us a speculative narrative about this missing work.

Contemporary protagonist Ava Goldberg experiences what might have been a favorite fantasy come true for an art history student like her when she inherits an art gallery from her grandfather.  Her love of art and her devotion to her family are the most believable aspects of her character.   Her determination to reclaim the Van Gogh that had been owned by her grandmother's family is admirable.  On the other hand,  I didn't find the romantic aspect of her life very credible, and thought that the book could have dispensed with it entirely.

My favorite character in this book was Ava's grandfather, Karl Engel, who was the protagonist of the historical chapters in this dual period novel.  I consider him the most fully realized character and I think that the entire plot really does revolve around him.  His courage in Nazi Germany preserves the life of the woman he loves.  His decisions in the 21st century motivate Ava and give her life a focus.

The issue of art forgery arises in this book through the perspective of a character who engages in forgery.  Mention is made of the sophisticated techniques he uses to fool the experts.

What most sets apart this novel about Nazis and art is that this one doesn't portray Nazism as a defunct ideology.  There are unnerving survivals of Nazi beliefs and attitudes alive among their 21st century descendants in A Savage Kultur.  I was reminded of a William Faulkner quote.  "The past is never dead.  It's not even past."  So the resolution wasn't nearly as triumphant as other books in this sub-genreInstead there is a dark undertone that could cause readers to wonder when other manifestations of the Third Reich might surface.  One might also wonder whether the entirely too sheltered descendants of Holocaust survivors like Ava will be capable of stopping them.