Hi everyone! I’m excited to share some thoughts about a recent book club book today. This book has kept me thinking for weeks after I finished it. And that’s impressive!
Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is a New York Times Bestseller that I have been seeing at bookstores and libraries for months. I was excited when our book group picked it for April because I have wanted to check it out. I love WWII novels so it sounded like something right up my alley.
This is an absolutely perfect book group book. It offers such rich themes and complex characters that make discussions really profound. We had some great conversations about different aspects of the book from Caroline’s historical accuracy to the ethical issues in the camps. Our host was prepared for a great discussion with questions, pictures of the real historical characters, and even a gorgeous video introduction to the novel by the author (watch it here).
- There were things about this novel that I loved and some things that I didn’t. More explanation below.
- This book is longer than I anticipated (almost 500 pages) and sometimes I felt that length was too much. I would not call this a quick read (but most WWII are not).
- Be aware that the experiences in Ravensbruck are very intense. Honestly, I also chose to skip chapters in the middle because the experiments and camp punishments were too graphic for me. Also, Herta’s pre-war chapters are graphic and more overtly sexual than I anticipated.
Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly follows the stories of three women during WWII whose lives are interwoven in a story of humanity, redemption, and healing. Goodreads says it best: “New York socialite Caroline Ferriday has her hands full with her post at the French consulate and a new love on the horizon. But Caroline’s world is forever changed when Hitler’s army . . . sets its sights on France. . . . Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, senses her carefree youth disappearing as she is drawn deeper into her role as courier for the underground resistance movement. . . . The ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser . . . finds 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 cross continents—from New York to Paris, Germany, and Poland—as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten.”
One of my favorite aspects of this novel was the three perspectives. I love novels that give us the narrative inside the heads of multiple narrators. Kelly does this seamlessly and beautifully. She creates vivid and meaningful stories from the eyes of each of the women. If only the chapters didn’t end on such tantalizing cliff hangers! I was definitely pushed to keep reading as a Caroline chapter ended with questions that took several chapters to return to! Sometimes, I must admit I skipped ahead to hear what happened in a particular story, especially with Caroline.
If I had to pick a favorite narrator and story, it would be Caroline. I love that she is a real person and actually helped so many people find a better life both during and after the war. I found her story to be unique and intriguing. There are a lot of novels about WWII (and I’m a fan of many!) but few focus on Americans connecting with the conflicts in such specific and raw ways. I loved the interactions between Caroline and the Polish women. Caroline is an inspiration but she is also flawed. I found her complex character fascinating; the ways she changed and grew in wisdom were compelling and inspiring.
I really appreciated the postwar chapters and would have liked more of the book in that time period. This isn’t a part of WWII history that I have read much about so I wanted more development in those chapters. While the concentration camp experiences were certainly dark, difficult, and emotional, they didn’t catch my attention like the postwar experiences for these women. I appreciated learning more about occupied Poland and life under both Hitler and Stalin. What made Kasia’s voice interesting is the ways she learns to (or is forced to) cope with her experiences in Ravensbruck when she returns to Poland. I would have liked more development and more specific details about how she and her family coped postwar.
While I can appreciate the unique point of view of a Nazi doctor, I gradually grew to dislike her and the way she hardened. I haven’t read any novel that includes a Nazi sympathizing protagonist. It was interesting and also difficult to read her point of view. But what I disliked is how Herta chose to be hardened (see the women as experiments and placing the science above humans) to what was happening in the camps. I expected her to be more complex–or to show more depth in a range of emotions. Although, her early prison release and new family practice complicated her character for me. Is repentance and redemption possible? Does everyone deserve to start over after mistakes, no matter how big? Can repentance truly occur without forgiveness, humility, and restitution? Deep questions that I do not know the answers to.
The ending wrapped up too quickly and easily for me. I desperately wanted a bit more closure for Caroline and her love life. I wanted more details about what happened to Herta. Perhaps even some inner soliloquies from her time in prison. Her character went flat for me after the war chapters. Kasia and her burdens seemed to change and resolve in an instant. I wanted more development in her journey to finding peace in her life. And I would also have liked more details in her relationships and interactions with her family. Perhaps even getting inside Zuzanna’s head in comparison with Kasia. Again, the postwar chapters were the most interesting parts for me so more development here would have been worthwhile for me.
Kelly’s prose and style are both just beautiful. It’s a style that both stands separate from the plot and also enlightens and enhances it. I often paused to admire a particular phrase or a gorgeous description or a well expressed emotion. This is the type of language that I just want to read slowly to soak up. For me, that meant this book could not be read quickly and certainly not in one sitting. I took my time experiencing her language and getting drawn into the story.
I would give this book 3.5 out of 5 stars. The parts that I loved (the language, unique perspectives and post war chapters) were vibrant and compelling. The parts that I disliked (the graphic and long middle of the book, certain perspectives and lack of development) took away from my desires to completely love this book. Overall, a unique look at a part of WWII I was not familiar with.
Have you read Lilac Girls? What did you think?
What are your favorite WWII novels?