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In 1945 on the outskirts of Salzburg, victorious American soldiers capture a train filled with unspeakable riches: piles of fine gold watches; mountains of fur coats; crates filled with wedding rings, silver picture frames, family heirlooms, and Shabbat candlesticks passed down through generations. Jack Wiseman, a tough, smart New York Jew, is the lieutenant charged with guarding this treasure--a responsibility that grows more complicated when he meets Ilona, a fierce, beautiful Hungarian who has lost everything in the ravages of the Holocaust. Seventy years later, amid the shadowy world of art dealers who profit off the sins of previous generations, Jack gives a necklace to his granddaughter, Natalie Stein, and charges her with searching for an unknown woman--a woman whose portrait and fate come to haunt Natalie, a woman whose secret may help Natalie to understand the guilt her grandfather will take to his grave and to find a way out of the mess she has made of her own life.
A story of brilliantly drawn characters--a suave and shady art historian, a delusive and infatuated Freudian, a family of singing circus dwarfs fallen into the clutches of Josef Mengele, and desperate lovers facing choices that will tear them apart--"Love and Treasure" is Ayelet Waldman's finest novel to date: a sad, funny, richly detailed work that poses hard questions about the value of precious things in a time when life itself has no value, and about the slenderest of chains that can bind us to the griefs and passions of the past.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-02-03
- Reviewer: Staff
This lush, multigenerational tale by Waldman (Bad Mother) of loves lost and found begins at a portentous historical starting point: the so-called Hungarian Gold Train. Waldman traces the path of a single pendant taken from this notorious shipment of Nazi-confiscated treasures, which the U.S. seized at the end of WWII but largely failed to return to the original owners, many of them Hungarian Jews. The pendant’s decoration, an enameled peacock, is a symbol of bad fortune, boding ill for the young U.S. Army lieutenant, Jack Wiseman, who takes it from the Gold Train in 1945. In the present, he passes the pendant on to his unlucky-in-love granddaughter, Natalie, imploring her to return it to its rightful owner. With that request, the narrative leaps back in time, showing Jack’s doomed romance with Ilona, a Holocaust survivor, and the life-changing early-20th-century friendship between pioneering female medical student Nina and dwarf suffragette Gizella Weisz. It also focuses on present-day Syrian-Jewish art dealer Amitai Shasho’s attempts to come to grips with his past. Inventively told from multiple perspectives, Waldman’s latest is a seductive reflection on just how complicated the idea of “home” is—and why it is worth more than treasure. Agent: Sarah Lutyens, Lutyens & Rubinstein. (Apr.)
Tracing the Gold Train
Ayelet Waldman (Red Hook Road, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits) has written about personal tragedy numerous times: failed marriages, the struggles of motherhood, divided families. Her latest novel, Love & Treasure, deals with a larger human tragedy: the true story of the Hungarian Gold Train during World War II. It is a slight departure from her previous work, and yet, it remains just as powerful and inspiring.
Broken into three sections told over various periods of time, Love & Treasure follows three men: Jack, a young Jewish-American captain in Salzburg during WWII; Amitai, a famous Israeli-born art dealer in the current day who deals with repatriated items; and Dr. Zobel, a pioneering psychiatrist at the turn of the 20th century in Budapest. It begins with Jack, whose primary responsibility is to guard and take inventory for the Hungarian Gold Train, which was filled with stolen riches from exterminated Jews. There, he falls head over heels for Ilona, a striking Hungarian woman who has lost all her family to the concentration camps and is desperately holding out hope that her sister might have survived.
Then readers find Jack—50 years later—on his deathbed with cancer. It is there that he gives a stunning gemstone peacock pendant to his recently divorced daughter, Natalie Stein. His last wish is for her to return this item, stolen from the train, to its original owners, leading Natalie on an epic pilgrimage throughout Europe with Amitai, who finds himself quickly obsessed with both the pendant and Natalie herself.
The third section of the novel adds more layers to the story about the pendant’s origin and owner, but the heart of the novel is the story of Amitai and Natalie. Although the male characters control much of the narration, it is the female characters (Ilona, Natalie and the suffragette Gizella) who truly shine with their moxie, fiery spirits and utter determination. Whether they’re fighting for the rights of Jewish people, trying to secure the female vote or making sure a family promise is fulfilled, it is these leading ladies who make Love & Treasure a real treasure.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Ayelet Waldman for Love & Treasure.