Lilac Girls from Martha Hall Kelly is an entrant into the crowded field of World War II historical fiction. She tells the story of three women, inspired by real life people and events. While everything about the book is appropriately tragic and inspiring, for me it was just a serviceable tale. I just couldn’t sink into the requisite emotions. Not what expected, especially considering that half the book is set at Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.
Kelly introduces three women. The first is Caroline Ferriday, a New Yorker who’s a hardscrabble socialite. We also meet Kasia Kuzmerick, a teenager living in small town Poland and getting caught up in the Resistance. Last is Herta Oberheuser, a young doctor trying to find meaningful medically-oriented work in chauvinistic Germany. All of their stories start in the late 1930s.
The book alternates chapters in each woman’s voice, carrying them through all the horror and loss of the War and its aftermath. Herta is the villain, Kasia the tragic heroine, and Caroline the savior. Hall rarely diverges from these archetypes in each character’s story line. And, as with all War-related fiction, the main question with each character is “will they survive?”
This was a pick by a new member of my IRL (in real life) book group. She’s a lovely woman, but I hope I like her next pick better. Lilac Girls didn’t grab me and encourage a binge read, nor did I feel close to any of the characters.
I started reading this specific sub-genre when I was a teenager, with Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and The Diary Of Anne Frank. So it’s difficult for me to find a book with a fresh perspective. But nevertheless, I wouldn’t say I’m jaded. In fact, I think it’s absolutely essential that we’re graphically reminded what happens when ordinary citizens accept (or protest) steps towards a totalitarian government.
Among the characters, Herta was mostly just nasty and reprehensible. Kelly could have made her into a more conflicted woman, but instead she was on board completely with what was essentially torture in the name of “research.”
Kasia was the most nuanced, and Kelly spends more time with her than the other two. She has the most dramatic experiences, and we see her change and grow because of them. But, honestly, there were many times I just wanted to smack her.
Caroline’s character is based on a real person who did many heroic things. Kelly threw in a romance that was just so predictable. My windshield watched me roll my eyes countless times during those chapters.
If you love female-focused World War II stories, give this a try. I recommend it with some reservations on its ability to connect emotionally.
The audiobook narrators
Now, the narration. Often when I listen to audiobooks, I barely mention narrators in my reviews. To me, a good narrator makes their work seem effortless. Not so with two of the three for this book. Cassandra Campbell, who read Caroline’s chapters, is consistently one of my favorites. This book was no exception. But Kathleen Gati and Kathrin Kana, who read Kasia and Herta respectively, just didn’t rise to the challenge. Their accents were stilted and their deliveries wooden. Therefore, I’d suggest the print version of Lilac Girls rather than the audio.