Title: The Lost Family
Author: Jenna Blum
Publisher: Harper Books
Read: May 2018
Publisher: Harper Books
Read: May 2018
Expected publication: 5 June 2018
My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟1/4
In 1965 Manhattan, patrons flock to Masha’s to savor its brisket bourguignon and impeccable service and to admire its dashing owner and head chef Peter Rashkin. With his movie-star good looks and tragic past, Peter, a survivor of Auschwitz, is the most eligible bachelor in town. But Peter does not care for the parade of eligible women who come to the restaurant hoping to catch his eye. He has resigned himself to a solitary life. Running Masha’s consumes him, as does his terrible guilt over surviving the horrors of the Nazi death camp while his wife, Masha—the restaurant’s namesake—and two young daughters perished.
Then exquisitely beautiful June Bouquet, an up-and-coming young model, appears at the restaurant, piercing Peter’s guard. Though she is twenty years his junior, the two begin a passionate, whirlwind courtship. When June unexpectedly becomes pregnant, Peter proposes, believing that beginning a new family with the woman he loves will allow him to let go of the horror of the past. But over the next twenty years, the indelible sadness of those memories will overshadow Peter, June, and their daughter Elsbeth, transforming them in shocking, heartbreaking, and unexpected ways.
Jenna Blum artfully brings to the page a husband devastated by a grief he cannot name, a frustrated wife struggling to compete with a ghost she cannot banish, and a daughter sensitive to the pain of both her own family and another lost before she was born. Spanning three cinematic decades, The Lost Family is a charming, funny, and elegantly bittersweet study of the repercussions of loss and love.
Years ago, in one of my previous jobs, I had the privilege to meet many holocaust survivors who shared their heartbreaking stories of survival and new beginnings in other countries far from their home. Although I greatly admired their resilience and the human survival spirit, and their capacity to forgive and start over, I also realised that there was often a huge price to pay for the trauma they had endured. One was survivor’s guilt, of having escaped the death camps when so many of their family and friends were not able to. Although they had moved on, married and had children in their new country, many said that they were not able to share their experiences with those nearest and dearest to them, and that the past remained an ever present ghost in their lives, which their families could not understand. This lasting effect of trauma is the very thing Blum explores in her latest novel, The Lost Family. Peter Rashkin, a German Jew who has managed to escape the death camps and has fled to America to start a new life, is still haunted by the death of his wife and their small twin daughters during the war. When he meets the vivacious, beautiful and innocent model June Bouquet, he thinks that she will be his salvation, the woman who will rescue him from his grief and allow him to move on. But Peter’s trauma is a heavy burden, one that will threaten to destroy his marriage and affect his daughter Elsbeth, who grows up in the shadow of the ghosts of her half-sisters, even though Peter will never talk about them.
Blum’s novel is told in three distinctive parts. Part one is told from Peter’s POV, as he is trying to make a new start in America, working in his restaurant Masha’s in New York. It is there that he first meets and falls in love with June, whose youth and happiness seems to be the perfect cure for his grief. June, who has grown up without a father, is drawn to the much older and mysterious Peter, basking in his adoration. When a shocked June first finds out about Masha’s and the twins’ deaths and suggests that Peter see a therapist to talk about his trauma, he replies: “Why would I need an analyst? I am happy now. I have you.” Part two is set ten years later as an unhappy June reflects on motherhood, marriage and her lost dreams, trying to find a way out of her lonely life. The last part, another decade on, tells about sixteen-year-old Elsbeth, who is propelled into adulthood through a chance encounter. For me, the first part of the novel was definitely my favourite. I loved the atmospheric setting and the descriptions of the magical food creations Peter serves up in his restaurant, named after his dead wife. As he first meets June and falls in love, for the first time hoping that the future will bring a new beginning, I so much hoped that he would be able to find happiness.
The latter two thirds of the book are a lot more difficult to read, as they deal with the fall-out of Peter’s past on the other family members, who will never be able to grasp the full extent of the trauma but are nonetheless deeply affected by it. As the granddaughter of a POW I recognised the signs of PTSD in Peter, which also scarred my grandfather, and therefore his children, including my mother. Blum paints an insightful and realistic picture of a marriage where both partners are trying to find salvation in each other to escape the past, but which ends up drowning them. It is, at times, unspeakably sad and tragic to read. There were a few things left unanswered that stayed in my mind long after I finished reading, and I realised how deeply this story had troubled me.
In summary, Blum’s novel The Lost Family is an insightful portrayal of a family shaped by loss and grief. With its atmospheric setting and believable characters, it effortlessly propelled me into a New York of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, as each of the family members drift away from each other, flotsam of a war that left a heavy burden of grief to carry. This is a topic not often explored in novels, and although it left me feeling unspeakably sad, it was a poignant reminder of the burden of the past impacting on our relationships and shaping future generations. I look forward to reading more from this author in future.
Thank you to Edelweiss and Harper Books for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.