Guest Reviewed by Jill Sorenson.
I requested this book from NetGalley because the description included the words “lesbian” and “romance.” What I found in the pages was so much more than I expected, but I came away feeling unsatisfied.
Katja Sommers, the heroine, is a young lady who works on a film crew in Nazi Germany. The crew is collecting war propaganda footage for Hitler. Katja’s boyfriend is a soldier in the army. She has two male friends, Rudi and Peter, who are lovers. Katja is drawn to the director’s assistant, Frederica. They share a brief, but exhilarating, kiss. Soon after, Frederica becomes the secretary to a powerful man named Goebbels. Katja catches Goebbels touching Frederica intimately. Hurt and confused, Katja runs away. She accepts her boyfriend’s proposal and enters an unhappy marriage.
What I just summarized takes years to occur in the story. Many pages are dedicated to in-depth details of the time period. The descriptions of filmmaking techniques, war tensions, and daily German life are all excellent. This is the product of meticulous research, and the writing is literary quality. There is also a cinematic effect that struck me throughout the novel. I’m guessing that the author is a film student (or professor), and maybe even wrote this as a screenplay first. As I read it, I was reminded of war movies, Atonement in particular.
Here is one example. Katja’s husband is away fighting for most of the novel. She learns that Frederica is a British spy. The women meet at Frederica’s apartment to listen to one of Hitler’s infamous radio broadcasts. There, they succumb to passion for the first time. Each kiss and touch is punctuated by the roar of the crowd, reacting to Hitler’s frenzied shouts:
The radio in the other room broadcast a tumult of “Heil!” and “Führer command!” over and over again, but they were like bursts of rain on the window.
Frederica bit softly. “I’ve had you so many times in my imagination. I know how you feel and taste. I’ve learned you, centimeter by centimeter.” With each word Frederica slid downward to brush her lips over Katja’s throat and chest, and the softness of each breast, as delicately as if she kissed a bird. Then, reaching the tip, she traced a circle around it with her tongue.
On the page, this scene reads beautifully. I think it would be very compelling on film.
A strong subplot follows Rudi, who is arrested for homosexuality and taken to a concentration camp. His lover, Peter, is not only gay, but half-Jewish. Peter goes into hiding at the Berlin Zoo. His main job is feeding the big cats. When rations become scarce, Peter eats some of the horse meat himself. Before the city falls, he must execute the animals he’s cared for.
Rudi’s story is even more heart-wrenching. His experience at the camp is not unlike that of most Jews, except that he survives. Ironically, he does so by prostituting himself to SS soldiers who have captured him for the same crime. When the Army needs fresh recruits, they declare the gay men “cured” and offer them a chance to live—by serving Germany.
This all sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? I’m giving you the highlights. The lows are harder to articulate. I think my main problem was that the historical details overwhelmed the romance and characterization. The story is told as a series of events, like a war timeline. As a reader, I’m looking for big emotions, dynamic characters, and a sexy romance. Other readers might find that in this book. I just…didn’t.
Which brings me to a sticky point. None of the main characters are Jews. Peter is half Jewish, but doesn’t seem to have any religious beliefs. Rudi is in a camp with other homosexuals. Katja also spends time in a camp for political prisoners. Everyone suffers greatly and I was moved. But you know what’s missing? Six million Jews. Tortured, beaten, robbed, asphyxiated, raped, shot, burned, and buried in mass graves.
The omission is glaring.
Near the beginning of the story, Katja speaks to Frederica about the troubling changes in Germany:
“For seven years, I’ve been swept along with the lies. I’ve helped sell the lies, about what it meant to be German. I didn’t much care when the Brownshirts killed each other for some trumped-up reason in 1934…I didn’t even really object when they smashed all those shop windows of the Jews and burned their synagogues. I looked away when the deportations started…But it’s come home now. Someone I care about is in a concentration camp, for the crime of loving someone. I’ve had enough.”
(ellipsis are mine)
I know Katja isn’t saying that it’s okay for Jews to be persecuted. But her sympathies (and the author’s?) clearly lie elsewhere.
Maybe I’m reading too much into the emphasis on gay and political issues over religious ones. As a non-Jewish straight person, I feel a little uncomfortable with the criticism I’ve given here. I do believe that most “good” Germans got caught up in the hype, and weren’t bad people. They couldn’t have known the extent of the genocide until after the war.
Despite my reservations, I found the four main characters likeable. Both Katja and Frederica appealed to me. They are smart, stylish and feminine. The love scenes are sedate, but sexy, and the chemistry between them felt real. I admired the way they used their looks and wits, and sometimes a handy weapon, to fight for what they believed in.
I’d call this a historical novel, not a romance, but there is a happy ending. Although a few elements bothered me, this is a unique, thought-provoking, worthwhile read.