April 03, 2017

The Women in the Castle - Jessica Shattuck

William Morrow, March 28, 2017.

Four Stars

The Women in the Castle follows three widows of the German resistance, as they work together to survive the frightening aftermath of World War II. The novel begins in 1938, on the night that will later be known as Kristallnacht. The wealthy, upper-class von Lingenfels family are hosting a glamorous party at their Bavarian castle, but as the violence of the night unfolds across the country, several of the guests discuss their plot to assassinate Hitler. Marianne von Lingenfels listens as the plot unfolds, headed by her husband Albrecht and her childhood best friend Connie. When Connie introduces her to his new bride, Benita, he tells Marianne that she can be “the commander of wives and children,” in charge of protecting the others once the men are gone.

Marianne is initially offended by Connie’s comment, but it comes to haunt her as the years pass. The novel jumps to 1945 – the war is technically over, but the damages to the German people are ongoing. As we know, the resistance assassination plot was unsuccessful – the men were caught and executed. Marianne and the other resistance widows were held captive, although Marianne was treated with more care and respect, as part of the German nobility. After the war, she is reinstalled in her ancestral castle, along with her children. Spurred on by Connie’s words, she focuses her energy on finding the other widows and bringing them to the castle – but the German bureaucracy is in shambles, and she can only find two of the women. The first is Connie’s wife Benita, a na├»ve, shallow woman that Marianne seems to have little respect for. The second is a woman named Ania, whom Marianne had never met but whose husband she views as a hero of the resistance. These three unlikely allies move together into the castle, where they raise their children and bond over limited resources and dangerous situations.

Marianne has always seen the world in black and white, good and evil. But as time passes, she realizes she no longer has the privilege to be self-righteous about her beliefs. The world has become more complex, and the futures of all three women are uncertain. While Benita attempts to move on and find love again, Marianne cannot let go of the unrequited feelings she held for Benita’s husband Connie, and it forces her to sabotage the possibility of love for her friend. Meanwhile, Ania wants to move on to some measure of happiness as well, but the very dark secrets of her past are holding her back, in a shocking way.

As a North American reader, this is an unusual perspective on WWII. There is space here to have empathy for the German people, even those who were complicit through lack of action. Marianne believed in the resistance cause, but Benita just believed what Connie told her to – and Ania’s past actions are beyond complicity. It’s too easy to see parallels between the early years of Nazi Germany and our current political situation, especially in Marianne’s description of events:

“For so long [they] had known Hitler was a lunatic, a leader whose lowbrow appeal to people’s most selfish, self-pitying emotions and ignorance was an embarrassment for their country… They had wrung their hands over his dangerous conflations, his fervor, and his lack of humanity… And all of Germany would never rise up. They were too steeped in Hitler’s rhetoric, too cowardly, too implicated in the horrors of his war to reject him.” (p. 74-75)

The novel ends in 1991, when the surviving women and children are reunited for a memorial event at the castle. All of the secrets have been revealed, and the healing has begun – especially for the younger generation. This is a heart-wrenching story, yet it is not overly emotional. The prose is quite matter-of-fact, while conveying a depth of feeling that goes farther than a lot of historical fiction, especially novels that are targeted towards women. I feel that this subject is a necessary one, in order to prevent history from repeating, as it seems to always do. As an overall picture of Germany after the war, this novel is vividly atmospheric, yet it is also an incredibly nuanced view of the human condition, specifically of these three women as they learn to survive – and more importantly, to forgive each other and themselves.

I received this book from William Morrow Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

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