Author: Pam Jenoff
Publisher: Mira Books
Release Date: February 21, 2017
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Reviewer: Jennifer S. Roman
Readers meet the first protagonist, Noa, in late 1944 Germany at a train station. She has been put out of her home by her father after he discovers she is pregnant to a German soldier who occupied their Dutch home. After giving birth at a girls’ home and having her baby immediately taken away from her, she finds a job cleaning the train station and living in a small closet there. During her routine shift, Noa finds a train car full of Jewish babies. One in particular calls to her because he resembles her own child. Without thinking, Noa grabs the baby and runs away from the station. She struggles in the cold snow of winter with a baby in tow before passing out from cold, exhaustion, and fear. When she wakes up, the baby is in a warm basket with plenty of blankets and she is in a soft warm bed being cared for by a circus ringmaster. He tells Noa he will keep her and the baby that she spontaneously names Theo, but in return she must perform on the trapeze with their current star, Astrid.
Astrid is the second protagonist. She comes from a prominent circus family herself, but because she is Jewish, she is now in hiding. Her parents have been taken by the Germans, and she does not know the fate of her brothers. So far she has survived through her marriage to a German officer, but he had to put her out and divorce her per Nazi decree. Now she performs with the circus and is NOT happy about having to train a runaway girl she presumes is a single mother. Little does she know she and Noa will develop a very close friendship that will be her saving grace.
As the women get to know each other and develop a relationship through their close quarters and intense practice schedule, they share their secrets. Things get worse as they travel to Nazi-occupied France, and there they put their friendship to the test as protecting one another becomes a matter of life and death.
Wow! I am still reeling from this haunting novel of friendship and survival. There are so many compelling characters that bring the story to life that it is hard to choose a favorite. Astrid appears cold and unfeeling at first, but then we get to understand the hardships she’s endured. By the end of the story, readers feel a real connection to her and experience a genuine hope for her happiness. Noa immediately endears herself as she tries to save an innocent Jewish baby from certain death. The ringmaster is a kind and caring person who not only wants his performers to be successful, but also goes out of his way to hide Jewish people right out in the open. Peter is a clown bent on expressing his political views through his act no matter the consequence. Each person has a backstory and secret that somehow gets exposed, often to the detriment of that person. The characters are so well-developed and compelling that it’s hard not to relate to them on a basic human level.
I would be remiss if I didn’t say something about how the ending is a bit predictable. Once we find out what Astrid has in mind, it’s easy to see how it plays out. This is entirely a perspective thing as to whether it’s good or bad; I like to predict what will happen and then take gratification when I am proven right. Other people like to be surprised right up to the very end. Without spilling any plot secrets, I will say that even though I guessed the outcome, I enjoyed the parts leading up to it and the finale.
Even after taking a day to digest this book, I still find myself mulling over different parts of the story. They all went together so well and made for a satisfying, if not haunting, scenario. The author makes a point to mention at the end of the book that there were, indeed, circuses in Europe who went to a great deal of trouble to hide Jews during WWII. This story, while fiction, is inspired by those events, and, in my opinion, did those events justice. I cannot remember a time when I was so moved by a book, and I believe other readers will be also.
The book does contain violence and sexual situations, as well as adult themes relating to war. There are some themes that may not be appropriate for younger readers or for those sensitive to the Nazi occupation in Europe. Otherwise, this is a beautifully written book that shows the ability of the human spirit to overcome tragedy and make peace with the past. I highly recommend it to mature readers.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The views and opinions expressed within are my own.