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In the 1970s, Ava is an artist and single mother living with her young daughter in New York City’s East Village before it became trendy or desirable. Her mother, Ilse, with whom she’s always had a strained relationship, comes over from Germany for a visit. But a series of crises (Ava’s daughter’s sudden illness, Ilse’s distressing disappearance) brings to the surface the tensions that have always simmered between the two, ever since Ilse abandoned Ava to an orphanage at the end of World War II. Ava’s first memories are of being retrieved from that orphanage by her mother --- she’s never received an explanation for why she was there or any inkling about her father’s identity. The visit ends in bitter anger, and Ava’s daughter grows up thinking her Oma is dead.

"Epstein effectively and heartbreakingly explores questions of loyalty, betrayal, and the limits of forgiveness and friendship in her third novel..."

Twelve years later, in the late 1980s, Ava learns of her mother’s actual demise when she receives Ilse’s cremated remains in a shipment from Germany, along with a handful of letters. The letters, along with Ava’s lingering curiosity about her own origins, prompts her to interrogate her own history, and readers are taken back in time to the 1930s, to Ilse’s own teenage years, to explore what she has hidden from her daughter --- and why.

The portions of the novel set during the 1930s can be difficult to read, in large part because they trace Ilse’s growing affinity for the Nazi party, which she embraces by becoming a leader within the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the female counterpart organization to the Hitler Youth. She tries to persuade her beautiful, high-achieving best friend Renate to also join the BDM, but in the process of forging her application materials (her parents don’t approve), Renate learns that her father was actually born Jewish, making her ineligible for membership.

As fervor for Hitler increases, and as suspicion and persecution of Jews continue to escalate, Ilse and Renate’s once unbreakable friendship begins to show signs of weakness. Jennifer Cody Epstein does a wonderful job of tracing the route ordinary Germans took on their way to committing or condoning atrocities. She also shows, chillingly, how the road to the Holocaust started in small acts of seemingly insignificant aggression or intimidation toward Jews and half-Jews like Renate.

Epstein effectively and heartbreakingly explores questions of loyalty, betrayal, and the limits of forgiveness and friendship in her third novel, poignantly illustrating how the mistakes and tragedies of the past continue to reverberate --- within families and throughout societies --- for years and decades to come.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 3, 2019

by Jennifer Cody Epstein