Love and Treasure, by Ayelet Waldman

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from Edelweiss, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 1 April 2014. 

Love and Treasure

Ayelet Waldman gives us three powerful stories in Love and Treasure, linked by an art nouveau peacock pendant. The pendant changes hands all too easily, but to each owner, it comes to represent to much: long held regrets, a death bed mission, a mismatched friendship.

The prologue, set in 2013, introduces us to Jack Wiseman and his granddaughter, Natalie. Jack is dying of cancer, but he makes a request that Natalie can’t ignore. He wants her to return a peacock pendant that he’s had to decades to the rightful owners; he was never able to do it himself. Waldman then takes us back to the end of World War II. Jack Wiseman and his unit come across a train in Werfen, Austria packed with Hungarians and the stolen belongings of thousands of Hungarian Jews. The Hungarian Gold Train is a political bombshell. It would be nearly impossible to return most of the watches, household goods, art, jewelry, and other items to their owners. Many of them are dead. Their surviving relatives are scattered across Europe. To Jack’s lasting regret, the American brass help themselves to the train’s contents to furnish their appropriated homes in Austria. Jack is given the futile task of inventorying and protecting the stolen treasures. The only bright spot is Ilona, who Jack meets in Werfen. Ilona is a survivor from eastern Hungary. She is thin and bitter, but not entirely broken. Jack falls in love with her, much to Ilona’s chagrin. Their relationship is fraught in so many ways and Jack has his heart broken several times before Waldman returns to 2013.

Jack took the pendant from the Gold Train treasure because it came from Ilona’s hometown. She rejected it when he tried to give it to her and, ever since, Jack wanted it to go back to its owners. Natalie Stein, his granddaughter, takes the pendant to Budapest where, with the help of a jaded Israeli art dealer named Amitai, she tries to find out who the real owner was before the pendant was stolen. Amitai recognized the pendant from a painting by another Holocaust victim. He believes the pendant is the key to finding out what happened to Vidor Komlós’ art after the war. As Natalie and Amitai search for lost treasures, they realize that they are strangely suited to each other. They have an instant connection and this second part of Love and Treasure hums with energy.

The last third of Love and Treasure is, for me, the weakest of the three parts—but only because the narrator irritated me so very much. Natalie and Amitai discovered that the peacock pendant originally belonged to the suffragist Nina Einhorn, who died at Auschwitz. Part three is narrated by the psychoanalyst Nina’s father sent her to when she started making trouble with her arranged marriage, insisting on attending medical school. In 1913, Nina’s father saw her career goals as, potentially, the first symptoms of dementia praecox (later known as schizophrenia). The psychoanalyst, Dr. Zobel, is a firm Freudian. Anyone familiar with Freud is probably rolling their eyes now. Zobel keeps trying to find childhood traumas to explain Nina’s behavior, though he frequently admits to himself that Nina is as sane as he is and that her suffragism is entirely rational. Nina makes an unsuitable (to her family) friendship with a dwarf, Gizella Weisz, another suffragist. They get into all kinds of trouble and are forbidden to see each other ever again after causing a scandal. Gizella gives Nina her peacock pendant as a goodbye gesture.

I loved the first two parts of Love and Treasure. I did manage to enjoy the third part, as long as I ignored my desire to mentally slap Dr. Zobel for being a Freud-influenced idiot. The book is so moving in so many ways. By presenting the story of the pendant in three parts, Love and Treasure becomes the story of the snarled legacy of the Holocaust. There is no clearly right thing for the characters to do. They have to wade through murky ethical waters on their own and learn to live with their difficult choices. But, like any great book, Love and Treasure isn’t just about one thing. It’s about memory. It’s about friendship and love. It’s about the meaning that people give to their possessions.

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