Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly
Published April 5th 2016 by Ballantine Books
Hardcover, 496 pages
Source: e-ARC from NetGalley
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 invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France.
An ocean away from Caroline, 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. In a tense atmosphere of watchful eyes and suspecting neighbors, one false move can have dire consequences.
For the ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, an ad for a government medical position seems her ticket out of a desolate life. Once hired, though, she 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.
I have to confess, I had a very rocky reading relationship with Lilac Girls. I almost quit more than once, but I am glad I stuck it out. I admit that I really am not familiar with what happened at the concentration camp at Ravensbruck. The attention to Sarah Helm’s book last year Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women caught my eye and I think was the first time I really learned there was a camp that was just for women. When I was offered a chance to read Lilac Girls with a fictional account of one prisoner’s story I jumped for it. Lilac Girls follows three very different women; New York socialite Caroline, Polish Girl Guide Kasia and frustrated German medical student Herta. Caroline and Herta were real women while Kasia is based on one of the Ravenswood Rabbits – healthy women that the Nazis performed horrific medical experiments on.
I know not to judge a book by its cover – but I feel like the cover of Lilac Girls suggested a story that didn’t happen. I’m not complaining that I didn’t get that story – but I am complaining a bit that I was misled! Maybe that is part of why I couldn’t connect with this book to begin with. I simply couldn’t see how a Polish resistance member and a Nazi believer would connect. That being said, I think the contrast between Herta and Kasia’s stories was very powerful when they were both in the camp.
Hall Kelly clearly put a ton of love and research into this book so I just wish it had been more consistent. The first third, I felt Caroline was totally underplayed and made me almost ready to quit the book. Once I did get into this book I was IN and didn’t want to put it down. Caroline Ferriday was clearly an amazing woman, but she’s played as such an airhead until the final third that it was kind of shocking to see what she was capable of. Even her dialogue was weaker than the other characters which made her annoying. I would love to read more about her actual life. I think the fictional romance created for Caroline almost weakened her real life story.
Herta is nearly forgotten until the end which was also disappointing. It would have been interesting to learn more of how her life was after Hitler died. Despite being the fictional character Kasia’s emotions came across the most powerfully. Her story was heartbreaking and made me all the more determined to read more about Ravensbruck.
It was eye opening for me to read a World War II and Holocaust book that was not about the atrocities against the Jewish people – this is a lot of what made the book for me. Lilac Girls left me thinking about the Nazi occupation of Poland and the Iron Curtain in a way I never have. Our great-grandparents came from Poland and I’m curious now about what might have happened to the family they left behind. My next step is to get my sister working on genealogy to understand where our history might lead.
Thank you Ballantine Books and NetGalley for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review.