[The Zookeeper’s Wife]: A Review

Happy Monday, friends! I hope you had a great weekend. We have family in town and are loving the extra fun and help 🙂

I’m slowly trying to make my way through my pile of reviews to write. As I am currently reading several books that I am really enjoying. So that pile is about to grow by at least two. And I am getting super close to the half way mark of Les Miserables (crazy?!) and I want to review this second quarter of the novel. Basically, I’m up to my eyeballs in books and reviews. It’s the good life, right? 😉

Today I am here with a review of The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman. My mom brought several books with her when she came to help us with our newborn. She got them at a local little free library which I love. I was excited about the premise of this book. But I must admit that it didn’t fully live up to my expectations.

Initial Thoughts:

  • I love WWII literature but it is also hard to read too much of it back to back. Perhaps because I read this after The Book Thief (one of my favorite novels period) I had unrealistic expectations. But I did not connect with this story as I have with other WWII novels.
  • I love the setting in the Warsaw Zoo. After reading this novel and Lilac Girls, I am more intrigued to travel to Poland and have enjoyed reading more about life there during the WWII.
  • I hear the movie is really good. I am intrigued by it and would like to see it.

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The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman follows the story of zookeepers Jan and Antonina who shelter animals and people in their Warsaw Zoo during WWII. Goodreads summarizes, “1939: the Germans have invaded Poland. The keepers of the Warsaw zoo, Jan and Antonina Zabinski, survive the bombardment of the city, only to see the occupiers ruthlessly kill many of their animals. The Nazis then carry off the prized specimens to Berlin for their program to create the “purest” breeds, much as they saw themselves as the purest human race. Opposed to all the Nazis represented, the Zabinskis risked their lives by hiding Jews in the now-empty animal cages, saving as many as three hundred people from extermination. Acclaimed, best-selling author Diane Ackerman, fascinated both by the Zabinskis’ courage and by Antonina’s incredible sensitivity to all living beings, tells a moving and dramatic story of the power of empathy and the strength of love.”

I would describe this book as part biography and part graduate thesis. It is not a novel. That surprised me. It did not have the gripping language or story that I love from other WWII novels. And honestly, I had a hard time getting invested in or hooked by the story from beginning to end. I wanted to connect with the characters, but had a hard time getting invested in them as well. I think my expectation of a novel with a fast moving plot and more typical action set me up for disappointment. If you read this book, know that it is not a typical story. In fact, be prepared for it to take longer to read. Because it wasn’t a gripping historical novel, I found myself having to make little goals about how much I would read a day. I didn’t just want to read it because I loved it. Again, that was disappointing.

The stories surrounding the zookeeper’s wife were interesting but I wanted more of a cohesive and overarching narrative. Jan and Antonina were heroes who chose to fight for what was right and good in the face of intense adversity. Theirs is a truly heroic and awe-inspiring story. But the individual stories felt disjointed. They didn’t form a coherent overall plot. Again, the genre hindered the effectiveness of the book for me. And the author often went off on tangents that did not interest me. Sometimes, we got extended historical accounts of what the Nazis were doing or about different political ideologies. In fact, her political agenda overwhelmed the story sometimes.

While I wanted to connect with Jan and Antonina especially, I felt a distance between reader and characters. We don’t get inside their heads. Although Ackerman does quote from Antonina’s journals and claims to be true to their accounts of their experiences. But there is a disconnect for me. I felt like I was still not able to connect with them on more than a superficial level. And that made it difficult for me to be invested in the story in general.

That being said, Ackerman’s writing is compelling and eloquent. She describes the simple and the complex with equal depth and beauty. While the subject of her book has many dark and difficult elements to it, she creates a world of light and goodness in the midst of suffering. I love stories like this that showcase the best of the human spirit. It gives me hope to read about people like Jan and Antonina who did not let the war and human suffering cloud their judgment about what is right. I applaud their efforts and also Ackerman’s beautiful way of expressing those efforts.

A few favorite lines:

“The zoo widened a visitor’s view of nature, personalized it, gave it habits and names. Here lived the wild, that fierce beautiful monster, caged and befriended.”

“During the war, when all hope had evaporated and only miracles remained, even unreligious people often turned to prayer.”

“This guardian spirit wasn’t new to Antonina…it sprang from the ferocity of motherhood, she decided, the instinct to battle if need be to protect one’s family.”

The Zookeeper’s Wife, pages 19, 274 and 275

Overall, I can appreciate what this book is trying to do–celebrating a brave couple who saved many lives. That is certainly applaudable. But the novel did not connect with me. That was disappointing. I think I would enjoy this book more if it was more of a traditional WWII novel. As is, it is sometimes boring and long winded. However, I am intrigued enough by the story that I still want to see the movie. Perhaps that has a clearer overarching story line.

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Have you read this novel? What did you think?
And what are some of your favorite WWII novels?
I’m always looking to add to my WWII TBR.

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8 thoughts on “[The Zookeeper’s Wife]: A Review

  1. Wait. This is nonfiction? I can’t decide if I think that’s super awesome or super confusing. I also thought it was a novel! Great minds think alike, I guess. Since you mentioned having to make little goals for reading each day– what made you decide to keep reading, instead of DNF’ing? Sometimes, I will just let books go if I get to that point.

    My favorite WWII novels are Night by Elie Wiesel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I also really enjoyed The Book Thief (obviously)– but I have gotten away from reading WII fiction lately. I’m starting to get burned out on the topic, you know? It’s too tragic…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ok, great minds seriously think alike! I adore Guernsey and All the Light too!! Opening up both your reviews to read when I am a bit more awake 😉 WWII fiction is a favorite of mine but I totally agree that too much can easily burn you out with the sadness of it all. I can’t read WWII novels back to back for just that reason.

      As far as Zookeepers Wife goes, I guess I wanted to know how it ended. I wanted to hear if they get the zoo back together and stuff at the end. So I guess the story held my interest just enough. Still disappointed though…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When I was in high school I read this author’s The Natural History of the Senses and The Natural History of Love, and I loved both. I also liked a collection of her poetry, Jaguar of Sweet Laughter. I haven’t been attracted to this one, though. I have a hard time with nonfiction about WW2, and I read less nonfiction in general anyway. I’m sorry this one didn’t work for you!

    Liked by 1 person

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