Final Ruling: 3/5 stars
Can I just say… wow. This book left me pretty speechless, as does anything I read containing such sensitive and heartbreaking material. It did break my heart to give this book less than five stars…but alas, I cannot compromise my integrity. Picoult’s writing is so gorgeous, and most of the book is absolutely phenomenal, but it is the first 25% of the book is very slow-moving, very “meh”. And here’s why:
Okay, so let’s get the not-so-amazing stuff out of the way. Quite honestly, I think that this book could have done without that first 25%. I get that Picoult needed a reason for Minka to tell her story, but the way she did it felt kind of like a cop-out, not to mention rushed and pretty glossed over. Sage is a sweet reclusive darling, and she is given an injury purely to create unnecessary intrigue which this book could truly do without. It takes away from the main story and the main point that Picoult is trying to get across. And in the end, the explanation for that injury and Sage’s reclusive nature was very very rushed, and felt more like an afterthought, one that took away from the actual story. In addition, the romance in the book is also what took away from the wonderful core of the novel. It was very unnecessary, very distracting, and very rushed through. It seemed to only stroke Sage’s ego and give her something to gossip with Mary about. Not to mention the entire idea of the “Jesus loaf” taking center stage, when it just took away (yet again), from the heart-wrenching tale of a Holocaust survivor and the people surrounding her.
Now onto more positive things. Aside from Sage and her story, which I explained in the previous paragraph, the story was breathtakingly beautiful. It brought me close to tears. Minka’s story was beautiful at times, was hopeful at times, was agonizing at times, and, like the life they lived, was truly grotesque. That which she endured in that horrific place is truly too heartbreaking for words. But, in the face of all of that misery, there was Minka and her stories. She told them at night to the other girls in her compound when they were sad or in pain, as an escape from the awful world they lived in. Her allegorical story was beautiful and well written, and earned her the title of “The Storyteller”. It continued on as she was forced from Germany into the ghetto, from the ghetto to the concentration camp, from working as a manual laborer to working as a secretary because of her education, from someone to be kicked around to somebody to be admired for her strength, her perseverance, her stories. In fact, it was her stories that saved her from being killed. One of the guards in the camp, one who did not agree with his fellow Nazis, one whose name was Franz, whisked her away from the depths of the miserable camp and gave her a job as his secretary and saved her life countless times. It was actually sweet how much he cared about her.
Okay, apart from the riveting plot, there was the moral issues raised, serious questions that really made you think. Like what. For instance, the most pressing moral questions were raised by the character of Franz, the scholarly German who wanted to be anything but a Nazi. He took Minska, saved her life, and gave her purpose; but did those good acts really cancel out everything he was forced to do in the name of the Third Reich? Did his unwillingness to comply and quiet rebellion really redeem him? Or did the sins of his brothers seep into his being simply because he joined the movement in self-preservation?
It was heartbreaking to read about Minka in Auschwitz, but it was truly sickening to hear about the man Sage’s supposed friend Josef claimed to be, which was Franz’s cruel and sadistic brother Reiner. However, by the end of the book, it is told in a tear-jerking reveal, that he is sweet and caring Franz, come to pay for the sins of his entire party by requesting that Sage help him die. In his plea, Sage and the reader are forced to contemplate the nature of forgiveness, something that I have realized is not as simple and clean-cut as I had come into this book thinking it was.
I would recommend this book to anybody with a soft spot for historical fiction, the strong ties of friendship, and evocative images that make you question the very foundation of your moral code. However, I would not recommend this to anybody easily distracted or frustrated by pointless and shallow plot lines, which this book seems to have in excess.