We’re making room on our shelves for plenty of new books. This month we look at novels; both historical and contemporary subjects figure prominently in these selections.
MINNA: Two teenagers living in Liverpool, England, in 1935 conceive a child. Catholic Viv and her Jewish boyfriend, Joshua Levinson, quickly get married, only for Viv to find herself back home with her disapproving parents when Joshua leaves for New York to pursue his dream of becoming a jazz musician and bandleader. Four years later, with war on the horizon, Joshua enlists in the Royal Air Force and Viv makes the decision to send their daughter Maggie to safety in the country as part of Operation Pied Piper. “The Lost English Girl” by Julia Kelly tells the story of the aftermath of that decision and follows Viv and Joshua until 1945 as they deal with the consequences of their youthful choices. Look for plenty of musical references.
AMY: Another historical novel Anglophiles will enjoy is Jennifer Robson’s “Coronation Year,” set in 1953 at the fictional Blue Lion Hotel. This hotel is located along the coronation procession, and hotel owner Edie hopes this will be a boost for business. Among Edie’s tenants are Stella, who is a Holocaust survivor and photographer, and James, a Scottish-Indian veteran and painter. The book is not about the coronation itself, but about the intertwining lives of the characters, with anticipation of the upcoming event being an exciting setting for the story.
MINNA: Famed Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua died in 2022, thus “The Only Daughter,” first published in Hebrew in 2021, is his final novel. Set in Padua, Italy, this short work tells of Rachele Luzzato, who is preparing for her upcoming Bat Mitzvah, a process that is complicated by her father’s illness. She has religious concerns as well, getting advice and support from her Catholic maternal family and her father’s Jewish one, as she also navigates a role as the Madonna in her school’s Christmas play and transitions into young adulthood.
AMY: Armando Lucas Correa writes about German refugees in his newest novel, “The Night Travelers.” In this story, Ally Keller is a young German woman who had a passionate affair with a Black musician, resulting in the birth of her beloved daughter Lilith. Beautiful little Lilith is deemed a “mischling”
(the Nazi term for mixed-race people) and through a series of events, Ally makes the decision to send the brilliant youngster away with the Herzogs, a Jewish couple who are fleeing. They sail aboard the St. Louis—and survive—to Cuba, where the Herzogs take on the role of parenting Lilith. While the author and the characters are not Jewish, the Holocaust and the issue of moral responsibility are very much part of this fine novel.
MINNA: “Kantika,” the Ladino word for “song,” is Elizabeth Graver’s novel inspired by her Sephardic grandmother’s journey through four countries in the 20th century. Rebecca Cohen is born in Istanbul to a wealthy Sephardic family that flees to Barcelona following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Marriage, motherhood, and political circumstances lead her to move from Spain to Cuba and then to New York in this tale rich in history that is also a tribute to one woman’s strength and determination.
AMY: “Künstlers in Paradise” by Cathleen Schine tells the story of Mamie Künstler, who at age 11 escapes Vienna with her wealthy Jewish family. They settle in Hollywood at the start of WWII, and Mamie’s mother Ilse gets a job writing for the movies. The action switches to present-day L.A. at the start of the pandemic, as Mamie’s 24-year-old grandson Julian, at loose ends, comes to live with her. As they share the lockdown, she regales him with stories of old Hollywood, and the two develop a close bond. This is a story with strong characterization and wit, to be savored.
MINNA: Inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Daniel H. Turtel’s “The Family Morfawitz” is the story of the postwar rise to wealth and power of Holocaust survivors Hadassah and Zev Morfawitz and their offspring, both legitimate and illegitimate. The novel begins with a Shabbat dinner, as the family sits literally on top of their real estate empire in the Tower Morfawitz on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Eldest son Hezekial chronicles the family story, but does he include all the betrayals, greed, and lust for power or does he paint a prettier picture?
AMY: Estee Lauder is the subject of Renee Rosen’s “Fifth Avenue Glamour Girl.” Rosen brings in fictional friend Gloria Downing as she tells the story of Lauder’s rise from poverty to dominance of the beauty industry.
Lauder’s brilliance and her incredible work ethic were combined with a driving ambition that propelled her to success. Using Gloria as Estee’s confidante and best friend gives the author a way into Estee’s thoughts and behaviors. This novel is a fun and enlightening look into the life of Estee Lauder and the empire she created.