Saturday, August 6, 2016

Review: Love & Treasure

Love & Treasure Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had high hopes for this one through almost the halfway point. It’s a story that traces the path of a particular necklace over a century from pre-World War I Budapest through the Holocaust, and up to the 21st century world of reparations and provenance.

Waldman is ambitious throughout, using a different voice and tone in each of her three major parts. And she does so with an impressive purpose: to weigh the ways we 21st century Jews ought to regard the difficult burden of the Holocaust’s legacy.

The first part works well, chronicling the way Jewish Army lieutenant Jack Wiseman falls in love with Ilona, the lone survivor of her Hungarian family. It’s tense and moving as Jack tries to understand an experience from which he was insulated by virtue of his American status. That straightforward fact – he didn’t go through the camps and he didn’t lose his beloved sister to unthinkable depredations – gets complicated. Jack has been through something of his own hell. He’s seen combat, had friends die in his arms, and lost the innocence of his youth. That’s not shoah-level trauma, but it is real.

Even more strikingly, it’s Jack who gets charged with taking care of a train full of possessions looted from Hungarian Jews. Ilona begins increasingly to turn her attention to Israel, to abandon (understandably) the world she knew. Jack tries to be true to that burden. Even as it becomes increasingly clear that there is no feasible way to return the property to its rightful owners or heirs, he holds to a scrupulous sense of what others have lost.

That part is the longest and much the most effective. It gives us a compelling, if impossible, love story, and it makes literal the question of how to “own” the staggering loss of the Holocaust. Like the novel overall, the answer to that question is larger than any one person, larger than any straightforward story.

The second deals with Jack’s granddaughter as she tries to return the necklace to one of its heirs and the third with the necklace’s origin in the complicated story of a Hungarian Jewish suffragette. Each is notably weaker than the one before it, less for the way the novel goes than for the unnecessary detail and digression. Waldman badly needed an editor here, someone who could cut out as much as a quarter of the second part and maybe even two-thirds of the third. (Her decision to use Nina’s analyst as her narrator is both labored and tendentious. It pulls us away from questions of the Holocaust itself, which might have justification in giving later victims rich stories beyond their victimhood, but then it often pulls away from Nina herself. We simply don’t need to follow the analyst’s story since it doesn’t come back to inform any other part of the book.)

The architecture of the novel does carry a lot of effect, and I found myself struck by the degree to which Waldman refuses any easy answer. No one can be the genuine heir of a victim murdered alongside her entire family, yet no Jew is quite free to stop thinking of her or himself as some sort of heir. Amitai is, in many ways, an opportunist who tries to make money off of returning lost wealth to distant relatives of those who once held it. As such, though, Waldman, casts him neither as scoundrel nor hero. When he decides to ensure that the painting goes to Hungary rather than Israel, he demonstrates a real ambivalence about who “owns” the history. That’s a striking statement, although it might carry more weight if it didn’t come to us as a seemingly sudden inspiration, one that goes against everything he’s done to that point.

In such a light, Waldman’s failings in the second and, especially, third parts are frustrating because it feels as if this had a shot to be a genuinely great novel. To be blunt, there are a handful of key questions that she might have answered if she’d been more economical earlier. If she’d been able to sustain the focus with which she examined her ideas in the first part, she could have extended this to a more satisfying conclusion.

[SPOILER ALERT] In the epilogue, as we see Jack in 1948, a still recently returned soldier feeling guilty that he has stolen the necklace from the material he was charged with guarding, that guilt gets undermined. He learns from attending an auction that his piece would have brought back only $1.50. In many ways, his valuing the necklace, his honoring the idea that someone with a real and passionate life owned and then had it stolen, is a more impressive tribute than any trivial amount of money would have been. He seems to become its rightful “owner” because he recognizes it, because he cares where others are indifferent or forgetful.

Years later, then, in what we experience as the prologue, it would have been nice to get a sense of how Jack comes to feel otherwise. Why does he think giving the necklace to a relative of its owner will make a difference? His granddaughter comes to suspect he might simply be giving her a space for her grief over the end of her marriage – and that feels partly true – so is it finally just a narrative dodge? Is Jack giving Natalie a romantic quest (that conveniently ends in romance for her) or is he making a statement? I’m OK with either of those answers – and I think Waldman’s inquiries can accommodate either one – but I’d like more to go on than guesses. There seems to be a powerful point here, but it gets lost along with the focus of the later parts of the novel.

And, finally, I am somewhat frustrated at the way Ilona simply falls out of the story. It makes sense that Jack would never see her again, but it doesn’t feel right that we never learn her outcome. She’s suffered the burden of the Holocaust and then left Europe and its painful memories behind. Has she learned anything? Does she figure in some distant way into what becomes of the necklace? Did she figure in some obscure way with the story of how it came to belong to Natalie? (That answer seems to be no, but maybe other readers can set me straight.)

Nicole Krauss’s much stronger History of Love makes its only misstep, a small one as I see it, in overdetermining the ways in which a Holocaust survivor’s book comes to shape the life of a girl one world and two generations away from him. We get all the loose ends tied up, perhaps too tightly.

In this case, we have the opposite. The powerful question that Waldman weaves throughout the narrative – what obligation does each of us have to own the history of the Holocaust – gets looser and looser before unraveling almost all the way. Promising as this novel is, it still needs a couple of knots to make it whole.

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