Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is an intriguing look into the lives of three women during World War II. As historical fiction, Lilac Girls is based on real people, telling stories that are difficult to hear but that need to be remembered. The three women whose perspectives frame the narrative – Caroline, Kasia, and Herta – live extremely different lives, but the war eventually connects their stories. Hall takes the stories of real people and creates a depth and complexity to history that can otherwise seem distant.
In every scene, Kelly subtly situates the reader into the setting. Every moment of narrative is set in a particular spot, from New York City to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck, Germany to the occupied city of Lublin, Poland:
“Lublin rose beyond them in the distance, like a fairy-tale city, scattered with old red-roofed pastel buildings as if a giant had shaken them in a cup and tossed them on the rolling hills. Farther west was where our little airport and a complex of factories once sat, but the Nazis had already bombed that. It was the first thing they hit, but at least no Germans had marched into town yet” (p. 21).
I love the image of these homes tossed onto to the hillside, and this is just one example of Kelly’s gift of description as throughout the book, I felt like I was watching the story happen.
While the descriptions helped me picture all the important places in the novel, perhaps the element that intrigued me the most was the complex character development, especially of the three women around whom the story revolves.
Caroline is a New Yorker, a socialite, and as some of her “friends” would say, a spinster. She spends her time at the French embassy, volunteering to help French immigrants and send provisions to orphans in France. While she is devoted to her work, Caroline hides a deep lonely place in her heart. Her father has died, and the man she almost married got away. When she meets a handsome French actor, however, things start to change for Caroline – until the war. Her love interest, Paul Rodierre, is stuck in war-torn France, and her work helping those suffering in Europe has only just begun.
Kasia holds the excitement and anticipation of any young woman in Poland. She hopes her friend Pietrik might become more than a friend, and she loves to walk the streets of her home, the city of Lublin. But Nazi Germany is just next door, and planes are soon overhead dropping bombs on Kasia’s home. With a fiery determination, Kasia convinces Pietrik to let her work for the Underground, spying and resisting the Germans, but with occupying Nazis on every corner, secrecy is near impossible. Before she can realize what’s happening, Kasia is arrested and sent to a concentration camp in Germany. Although she perseveres and fights to survive, Kasia’s life will never be the same.
Herta is in Germany, struggling to gain a position in the medical field, but female doctors are rare. She’s had a difficult life, facing abuse and discrimination, and she’s ready for a change. Surrounded by Nazi propaganda and pushed by her own ambition, Herta accepts a position as a doctor for Ravensbruck, but she doesn’t realize until she gets there exactly what being a doctor for the Nazis means.
Kelly expertly develops these characters from their beginnings before the war through their experiences of imprisonment, abuse, loss, and hope. Not only does she do this for her three main characters, but even side characters who show up for only a page or secondary role have depth. Take Herr Fenstermacher, a German electrician who works at the concentration camp. He only arrives for a couple pages, but he left a lasting impression on me. Visiting the camp to fix the light fixtures, Herr Fenstermacher leaves little gifts and treats the prisoners with kindness. He has a “voice like warm molasses” and he sings the news in French to the girls (pp. 256-7). From even these smallest descriptions, the characters in Lilac Girls hold their own, giving the novel a sense of reality and complexity that really drew me into the story.
As a trigger warning, please keep in mind that some content in the book is difficult to read, including scenes of sexual assault and Nazi violence.
Overall, I slowly became fascinated with the lives of the women who lived during such a tense, terrifying time. Reading the Author’s Note at the end of the book really drove the story home for me though: these were real women, real lives. They should be remembered, and Lilac Girls does just that.
Thank you to Penguin Random House for providing this book for review. Lilac Girls is on sale now, so get reading!