I’ve been reading historical fiction for a long time, and I’ve noticed that the genre adores stories about World War II. I can understand that. Authors can tackle one or multiple aspects of the war like women’s efforts, the Western Front, the Pacific Front, etc, and they can show them from any perspective. It’s a gold mine. But, how would a WWII-based historical fiction novel stand out during this present time? Martha Hall Kelly provides one effective answer with her multiple-narrator book Lilac Girls.
Lilac Girls tells the stories of three women – Caroline Ferriday, Kasia Kuzmerick, and Herta Oberheuser from 1939 to 1959. Caroline is a former Broadway actress who works at the French Consulate in New York City when Hitler invades Poland. She later sets her sights on France. Kasia is a Polish Catholic teenager at the beginning of the war; she becomes a courier for the underground resistance movement. Herta is a young German doctor who lands a position at Ravensbruck, yet she finds herself in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power. Their lives begin to collide when Kasia, her mother, and sister are sent to that same concentration camp. As a result, their stories intertwine as Caroline and Kasia seek justice for people that history has forgotten.
What makes Lilac Girls stand out is that it encompasses a broader view of the non-soldier’s experiences throughout World War II. This is especially true with the home front and the work that women performed on both sides, despite how deadly some of that actually was. Some sections can be hard to get through, especially the parts that involve Kasia and her family at Ravensbruck. Yes, there are times, in which it focuses on Caroline’s glamour parties to raise money, but it doesn’t stray far from the cruel realities that people faced during the war, especially Kasia’s and Herta’s. While the story could have been solely Kasia’s and be just as gripping, having the multiple-narrator aspect makes the story stand out from its peers.
In addition, the main characters are fleshed out and have their own real struggles and flaws. Caroline wants to help the Rabbits of Ravensbruck (women like Kasia who were used as lab animals for medical experiments), but some of her efforts can come off as tone deaf. This is especially true in the scene in which she tries to give the survivors handbags, but the women themselves are from Communist Poland, and they’re not allowed to have gifts like those. At first, Herta questions the treatment of the prisoners, yet over time, she becomes desensitized to the cruelty thrusted upon them. I also want to point out that her colleague Fritz forced her to inject an elderly prisoner with a lethal drug although he would later leave the camp to be a medic on the front lines because he couldn’t stand what was going on there. In other words, Fritz is a hypocrite. And then, there’s Kasia, who has a hard time letting go of her time in Ravensbruck. It gets to the point where she refuses to have a relationship with her father’s new girlfriend (after her mother disappears) and slaps her own daughter for accepting paint brushes from her sort of stepmother. Despite her questionable actions, Kasia’s journey to move forward with her life and family drew me in and made me root for her to achieve that.
I’ve noticed that some readers are not really fans of how the novel jumps from one character to another, especially right on a cliffhanger. Even though I felt annoyed by this at times, I think that Kelly did this on purpose to balance out the negative and positive story elements. It could have been done better, yet it’s Kelly’s first book, so I’ll let it slide.
The only thing in this novel that didn’t work as well as it should have was the romance between Caroline and Paul. The Author’s Note reveals that the love story was fictionalized, so Caroline could have a real connection to France, especially during the war. That’s understandable. I didn’t mind the romantic subplot, and I was fine with them not working out in the end. However, I did mind that the book spent so much time on it that it felt misleading when the relationship ultimately fizzled.
There’s another thing I have to address: the cover. I’ve noticed that there’s a certain trend with WWII-based novels having covers depicting women looking away. Why does this happen? I don’t think anybody really knows, but it’s here and in full force. What is worse is that the cover in this case doesn’t work. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that it’s misleading because I thought it would be all of the main characters walking together. While reading the novel, I realized that it wasn’t going to happen since Caroline and Kasia would never be friends with Herta. In fact, the other books in the Lilac Girls trilogy (yep, it’s a trilogy) have similar covers. I’ve reviewed a book with a similar cover (The Atomic City Girls), and in that instance, that one made sense as the two women are walking to the facilities that would aid in making the atomic bomb. In the case of the Lilac Girls cover, it was basically a cash-in on an existing trend.
I listened to the audiobook, and it was very good. Cassandra Campbell (an award-winning audiobook narrator from everyone’s favorite book Where the Crawdads Sing) is Caroline, and she voices her like a Hollywood starlet with kindness in her heart. Kathleen Gati (from General Hospital) plays Kasia with a vague Polish accent, and she captures the emotions that Kasia feels, especially during her time at Ravensbruck and how she deals with it afterwards. Kathrin Kana – a bilingual German/English actress – takes on the role of Herta. Kana plays her part well as her character becomes desentized to the horrors while working at Ravensbruck. For those who haven’t read the book yet, the audiobook is the best way to do so.
Overall, Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is a wonderful book that stands out in the midst of established WWII-based historical fiction. It focuses on three women with vastly different struggles throughout the war and afterwards, and each of the characters are distinct (I’m not just saying that because of the audiobook). This novel is so good that one can easily overlook the relatively minor flaws. I would definitely recommend it to people, who enjoy not only historical fiction set during WWII, but also stories about women who made differences in people’s lives.
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