I have a book recommendation for you. Ruth & Gisela by Elizabeth Wix is a wonderful read. It's a mixture of domestic fiction and war story told from the viewpoints of two very different women--one British and one German whose lives will touch briefly and later intermingle in the most unexpected ways. I could imagine it the sort of novel that Virago would publish--particularly one of their older titles with those distinctive green covers that I very much miss seeing on their new releases. Or perhaps something along the lines of a novel that you'll find in the Persephone Books catalog. As for the story, think of something by Sue Gee or maybe Mary Wesley or even closer to Margaret Forster's work--all authors I have read and loved. It's domestic fiction of the cozy variety but the story has substance as well.
The story itself is bracketed by a search a woman has undertaken for her birth mother which takes her all the way from New York City to Wroclaw, Poland. What she is really in search of is a place that no longer exists. Breslau before the war was part of Germany and had a large German speaking community. After the war however, with the shifting of borders and the influx of Polish citizens, Breslau simply disappeared and became something else. What little Jane knows about her mother, a name and a place where she used to live, begins in Breslau.
"The one thing which was indisputably true was that my birth mother was not there, nor had been for the last fifty years, and it was a romantic gesture, surely, this pilgrimage in search of someone I had never known, to the town where Gisela said she had once lived. Even the town itself--real as it was with a station, shops, parks and churches--was not the prosperous German Breslau of Gisela's youth but had been transformed into another place entirely."
The story immediately shifts to 1949 London and then moves even further back in time to Breslau before the war where Gisela lives with her father in a comfortable middle class existence, though tinged slightly with sadness as her mother died due to complications after the birth of a brother who later died as well. Certain facts about Gisela's story are revealed to the reader early on, but so caught up in the 'present' of the telling I soon forgot under what conditions Gisela finds herself in London.
Before the war, but at a time when there is a whiff in the air of what's coming, Gisela spends a summer in England visiting a friend she had met in Berlin. Gisela's family was not exactly bohemian, but her parents were cultured. Her mother could speak English and her father is an antiquarian bookseller and it was thought that maybe Gisela spends just a little too much time with her nose in a book. So her journey is meant to widen her horizons.
It's interesting seeing England through a foreigner's eyes, and interesting too to see how Gisela is perceived. Some of the people she meets in Kent in 1936 will become friends and some will remain only acquaintances. The war will impact all of them in one way or another. That summer is the summer when Ruth Anderton, who was also staying at Fairleigh Lodge, was pining away for Harold Stoddard who being of a practical nature wanted to make his way before marrying. It's an idyllic summer spent in a country house with parties and tennis on the lawn and cucumber sandwiches and a generally festive air. How quickly the world will change.
Just a few years later as everyone is getting on with their lives war breaks out and their world is disrupted. Not long married Ruth must see off Harold who gets folded into the conflict. And on the other side, Gisela is still in Germany surviving as best she can. Having said goodbye to close friends and relatives who emigrated early on, her father never believed the worst could happen, but it does. Just how the two women cope during the war, how it changes their lives and those around them is what makes up the bulk of the story which is told in shifting viewpoints every few chapters. It is a study in contrasts and neither women leads an easy existence. Each will have to make difficult choices, in some cases life altering and heartbreakingly so.
Bad things happen, though they often happen off stage or are only alluded to, but all is portrayed with a fairly light touch. Gisela, under much different circumstances than her youthful first visit will return to Kent, and the two women's lives will once again cross paths without either realizing it at the time. You can probably guess what will occur considering the journey Jane makes at the start, and a certain amount of 'what happens' in the story is told in the very beginning chapters, but knowing some of the outcome never lessens the tension in the storytelling.
Ruth & Gisela is a marvelous read for a number of reasons--aside from plain old good storytelling, it has a very authentic ring to it (it is actually based on a real family) with just the right amount of period detail and sympathetic and realistically drawn characters. Seeing the women's lives laid out side by side as they are makes for an interesting and unusual spin on a story set in an era much written about--just when you think there are no new stories to tell.
Elizabeth Wix was born in England but now lives in New York. I met her virtually through blogging. Knowing my tastes in books she kindly sent Ruth & Gisela my way, and it has indeed been a good fit for me as I enjoyed it immensely. Aside from writing, Elizabeth takes the most amazing photographs. You can check out her work at About New York. You can find more information about her books here.