LOVE AND TREASURE by Ayelet Waldman

Book Quote:

“…tipped the contents of  of the pouch into his plan. He caught hold of the gold chain. The gold-filgreed pendant dangled. It bore the image, in vitreous enamel, of a peacock, a perfect gemstone staring from the tip of each painted feather.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate (MAR 31, 2014)

Ayelet Waldman’s new book begins in Red Hook, Maine, the setting of her novel Red Hook Road, but the two could hardly be more different. For whereas she had previously confined herself to two families in the same setting over a period of a very few years, she travels in this one to Salzburg, Budapest, and Israel, at various periods over a hundred-year span. By the same token, though, it is a stretch to call Love and Treasure a novel; it is essentially a trilogy of novellas, each with different characters, but linked by a single object and common themes. The object is an enameled Jugendstil pendant in the shape of a peacock. Although only of modest value, it plays an important role in the lives of the people who people who possess it, and provides a focus for the novelist’s enquiry into the lives of Hungarian Jews both before and after the Holocaust.

In the prologue, Jack Wiseman, an old man dying of cancer, entrusts the pendant to his recently-divorced granddaughter Natalie. Immediately, we plunge into the first and by far the best of the novellas, set in Salzburg, Austria, in 1945. Jack, as a young lieutenant in the US Army, is entrusted with the administration of the box-car loads of valuable goods brought out of Hungary on the “Gold Train” — items that he realizes have all been “donated” by Hungarian Jews prior to their exile or extermination. I have no doubt that this is based on truth — not only the train itself, but the horrifying revelation of what happened to its contents, and indeed the exposure of continuing anti-Semitism on both sides even after the War was over. Set in a jurisdiction almost overrun by the sheer numbers of refugees, survivors, and other displaced persons, the story was disturbing, informative and gripping. Even more so as Jack falls passionately in love with one of the survivors, a fiery redhead named Ilona Jakab. It is a surprisingly muscular piece of writing building to a powerful finale. Had I stopped the reading then, I would have given the book five stars.

The other two sections are not quite of this standard. The second novella returns us to the present day when Natalie is in Budapest, keeping her promise to track down the original owner of her grandfather’s pendant. It is less interesting because the laborious process of searching archives is inherently less compelling, but also because it is more difficult to buy into the romance story in this episode. Natalie pairs up with an Israeli art dealer named Amitai Shasho, virile, polished, and wealthy — everything a hero should be — except that he is essentially a Holocaust profiteer, and thus a difficult man for me to trust. He will change towards the end of the novella, but I never really got over my initial disapproval.

The third section is rather more successful, taking us back to Budapest, but now in 1913. It works because Waldman has so perfectly captured the narrative voice of a Freudian psychoanalyst, Imré Zobel, describing his work with a nineteen-year-old Jewish girl named Nina S. It is a perfect parody of Freud’s own literary style, with the added deliciousness of a narrator who, if not actually unreliable, is certainly self-deceiving. But it takes us away from any of the characters whom we have met earlier, and although it fills in some interesting back-story, it is essentially a stand-alone piece.

I mentioned Waldman’s themes. Chief among them is anti-Semitism, seen in an historical context and in some unexpected places; Waldman both makes a strong case for Zionism, and reveals disturbing patterns of discrimination within the Zionist ideal. Almost equally strong is her concern for women’s rights and the historical suffragist movement. And as always, she writes very freely about sex. I was reminded of two other novels in particular. One is The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, which also looks at the twentieth century in Eastern Europe through the history of a single artifact. The other was The White Hotel by D. M. Thomas, in its multi-sectional structure and use of psychoanalysis, though Waldman’s book is neither so adventurous in its writing nor so strongly focused on the Holocaust. But you might call it a peri-Holocaust novel, and this I did find interesting. If only it had maintained a stronger focus.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 18 readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf (April 1, 2014)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Ayelet Waldman
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
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March 31, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Eastern Europe, Israel, NE & New York, World Lit

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