LILAC GIRLS – BOOK COMMENT

Lilac Girls
Author: Martha Hall Kelly
Publisher: Ballantine Books (2016
Genre: Historical Fiction
Hardcover Edition: 476 pages
Source: Personal Copy

This is a necessary book – a look at WWII that will likely present new perspectives to many readers––the horrors of the concentration camp for women more graphic and the view more personal for each of the women whose viewpoints are represented than is the norm in World War II fiction . The reader experiences the war from different perspectives, national, and personal than is often the case in this genre.

The author of this first novel based her story on real people and a real place, Ravensbruck, Hitler’s only major concentration camp exclusively for women. Much of the novel takes place in Poland. Author Martha Hall Kelly became interested in the story of the American Caroline Ferriday and the tremendous work she did helping European women during and after the war. She created characters for her story that are a tribute to many women of the era, real and imaginary and their power to make history.

Characters are one of the strongest aspects of this work. The author also brings to reality not only the concentration camp, but also New York City and Paris during those years, as well as other European settings. One of the most arresting scenes is the arrival at Ravensbruck of Kasia, a young woman from Lublln Poland. This reader found the three separate stories: New York socialite, Carolyn Ferriday, young Polish woman Kasia, and a young German Doctor, Herta, all nearly equally compelling. Exploring how different readers feel about the three stories is a worthy book club discussion topic. Certainly the critics don’t all agree. The author is also particularly adept at helping the reader understand an unfamiliar situation through analogy.

If there was a surprise, it was this. The first two-thirds of the book holds the reader’s attention as if one were watching the tightrope portion of a circus show. The last third seems to move more slowly. Perhaps the reader tires of waiting for the three stories to intersect. Perhaps, one tires of waiting for something to gel with Carolyn’s long romance? I found myself wondering if the last part of the book could have been tightened or compressed, keeping suspense and the momentum of the story in spite of the passage of time. Parts of the story are unsettling and haunting, as they should be. War produces chaos and unhappy endings. Endings are difficult to write as they are to live.

In summary, this is a remarkable first novel. The author’s extensive research pays off as she creates a compelling story. This is women’s history at its best.

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