Three women, haunted by the past and the secrets they hold
Set at the end of World War II, in a crumbling Bavarian castle that once played host to all of German high society, a powerful and propulsive story of three widows whose lives and fates become intertwined—an affecting, shocking, and ultimately redemptive novel from the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Hazards of Good Breeding.
Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once-grand castle of her husband’s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resister murdered in the failed July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.
First Marianne rescues six-year-old Martin, the son of her dearest childhood friend, from a Nazi reeducation home. Together, they make their way across the smoldering wreckage of their homeland to Berlin, where Martin’s mother, the beautiful and naive Benita, has fallen into the hands of occupying Red Army soldiers. Then she locates Ania, another resister’s wife, and her two boys, now refugees languishing in one of the many camps that house the millions displaced by the war.
As Marianne assembles this makeshift family from the ruins of her husband’s resistance movement, she is certain their shared pain and circumstances will hold them together. But she quickly discovers that the black-and-white, highly principled world of her privileged past has become infinitely more complicated, filled with secrets and dark passions that threaten to tear them apart. Eventually, all three women must come to terms with the choices that have defined their lives before, during, and after the war—each with their own unique share of challenges.
Written with the devastating emotional power of The Nightingale, Sarah’s Key, and The Light Between Oceans, Jessica Shattuck’s evocative and utterly enthralling novel offers a fresh perspective on one of the most tumultuous periods in history. Combining piercing social insight and vivid historical atmosphere, The Women in the Castle is a dramatic yet nuanced portrait of war and its repercussions that explores what it means to survive, love, and, ultimately, to forgive in the wake of unimaginable hardship.
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: William Morrow (March 28, 2017)
Publisher: William Morrow (March 28, 2017)
I do love a good World War II historical novel and I have worked my way through many of them over the years. I have come to seek out the books that give me a different perspective of the war and The Women in the Castle does just that, exploring the lives of three different German women, brought together and caught up in the war--each suffering and looking for redemption in their own way. The women--Marianne, Benita, and Ania, are unlikely to be friends outside of war, it is only a promise Marianne makes to look after the wives and children of the resisters who along with her husband and her best friend and past love, tried to stop Hitler by assassinating him. When that plan fails, the men are condemned to death and it is only the fact that Marianne is a woman and her husband was from a privileged and well-thought of family, that leave her able to survive, make a life for her children in the family's castle, and bring Benita, Ania and their children to stay with her.
The women are very different--Marianne is bold and judgmental, Benita is fragile and shattered, and Ania is strong and practical. Each are flawed and human and through the chapters which move from 1938 and before the war, the horrible war years and the years afterward up to 1991. Shattuck portrays each woman through her story and her memories--giving glimpses of what led them to the role they played and how they ended up at Burg Lingenfels. Often times when you read about the war, it is easy to judge people for what they did or did not do. Looking at the German perspective was especially interesting to me as it isn't one I read about often. Shattuck makes these women relatable, giving me insights to their plight and allowing me to empathize with them and their sorrow and guilt--even if I didn't always like them or some of their actions and decisions. As in most books of war, not everything ends happily for everyone, but things are wrapped up in a satisfying way that felt authentic to the characters and story. I really enjoyed The Women in the Castle--it is absorbing, unique and it touched my heart. Highly recommended.
Author Notes: Jessica Shattuck is the award-winning author of The Hazards of Good Breeding, which was a New York Times Notable Book and finalist for the PEN/Winship Award, and Perfect Life. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, New Yorker, Glamour, Mother Jones, Wired, and The Believer, among other publications. A graduate of Harvard University, she received her MFA from Columbia University. She lives with her husband and three children in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Find out more about Jessica at her website and connect with her on Facebook.
Although much of the story takes place in the thick of war, there is food to be found in The Women in the Castle. Some examples include: At the castle in 1938 there is a party with champagne, potted fish, smoked meats, pork meatballs with parsley sauce, steamed dumplings, asparagus wrapped with ham, jelly molds, pineapple flambe, caviar on toast, pork roasts, apple tortes, and cake. During the war, the castle suffers food shortages but does much better than many with plenty of carrots, cabbage, and potatoes, as well as fresh raspberries, gooseberries, and other fruit in the summer. There is porridge, soup and broth, dried meat, bread, cookies, stollen and plum schnapps, shelled peas, eggs, spinach soup, barley, and pickled vegetables. Several German dishes are mentioned like schnitzel, various sausages and wursts with curry ketchup, pfeffernusse kuchen, kaiserschmarrn and kartoffelpuffer, along with weissbier to drink. Holiday packages from America included oranges, chocolate bars, gum, and Kraft cheese. Finally, a picnic at the castle (a happy day for the characters) featured cold meatballs, potato salad, pickles, fresh plums and cake with raisins.
Ultimately I went to one of the three most mentioned foods for my inspiration. Along with carrots and potatoes, it seemed like every German garden contained heads of cabbage and dishes like cabbage, potato and carrot soup were a common meal. I looked online for a cabbage dish that sounded good and found a recipe for Sweet Braised Cabbage from Just Like Oma: Quick German Recipes.
It seemed simple and interesting with its sweet and sour flavor. Being a meat-free eater, I was going to serve it with trout (a fish mentioned in the book) but then I saw some vegan Field Roast Smoked Apple Sage Sausages and since sausages were also mentioned frequently, I decided to serve them along with the cabbage for a German-inspired dinner.
Just Like Oma says, "Bayrisches Weisskraut, aka Bavarian Cabbage, comes from the Bavarian region of German. Sauerkraut seems to be the most commonly thought of German cabbage recipe. This, however, is a very easy way how to cook cabbage and is often used as a side dish to accompany many German meals. There's a certain sweet/sourness to this braised cabbage dish that's like eating candy! It really does taste great with almost anything!"
German Sweet Braised Cabbage
Slightly Adapted from Just Like Oma: Quick German Recipes
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, sliced
3 Tbsp sugar
1 garlic clove, crushed (I used 3 cloves, roasted garlic)
1/2 large white (green) cabbage, coarsely chopped
salt and pepper
1 tsp caraway seeds (I used 1 Tbsp)
1 cup water or broth (I used veggie broth)
1 Tbsp vinegar or to taste (optional) (I added)
(I added some chopped fresh parsley to serve)
(I thickened the sauce as noted below)
Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium heat, add the onions and brown slightly--about 6 to 7 minutes. Stir in the sugar and let the onions caramelize, about 10 minutes. Add the cabbage, garlic, caraway seeds, and water or broth to the onions. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Bring mixture to a boil and simmer, covered, about 30 minutes or until the cabbage is tender, stirring occasionally and adding extra water or broth if needed. Season with more salt and pepper if necessary and add vinegar to taste if desired.
*Note: To thicken the sauce, dissolve 1 Tbsp corn starch in a bit of cold water. Slowly add just enough to the simmering liquid until it thickens.
Notes/Results: I realize cabbage isn't always a popular food but this preparation is quite good--it has plenty of flavor between the onions, vegetable broth and caraway seeds and the sugar and vinegar give it a lovely balance of sweet and sour tastes that perfectly offset the meaty flavor of the vegan sausages. I love caraway and added extra seeds, as well as thickening my 'sauce' with the cornstarch and adding a bit of parsley for color. Vegan 'meat' substitutes are an infrequent choice for me because I don't always love the texture or the processing, but these Field Roast sausages are not bad--especially when grilled on all sides so the outside is a bit crisp. Of course you can pair this cabbage with regular sausage or anything really. All together, it made for a not-too-heavy, but still satisfying lunch that (vegan sausages aside) ;-) captured the spirit of the book. I will happily make this cabbage recipe again.
I'm also linking this post up to the Weekend Cooking event at Beth Fish Reads, a weekly event that is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share. For more information, see the welcome post.
Note: A review copy of the "The Women in the Castle" was provided to me by the publisher, Harper Collins, and TLC Book Tours. I was not compensated for this review and as always, my thoughts and opinions are my own.
You can see the stops for the rest of this TLC Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.