Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following: rape, war, war crimes, abuse, surgery, starvation, murder, and death.
Goodreads Rating: 5 Stars
Lilac Girls has been on my TBR since 2016. I knew I would love the book, but when I finally had a copy, I kept putting off for no good reason. When I hit a reading slump this month, I decided now was the time to bust this one out- and Martha Hall Kelly never failed me.
The novel circulates around three different narratives that eventually weave themselves together, spanning from 1939 to 1959. Within those decades, life changes forever due to the course of WWII.
In 1939, Caroline Ferriday works for the French consulate in NYC. A woman of forty and retiree off Broadway, she has all but given up on love, marriage, and children, but her passion for charity work has dulled the loneliness she feels. Then, she meets actor Paul Rodierre, a stand-in presenter at a banquet charity event, and Caroline can’t help but be pulled in by his charm. Though he’s a married man with a wife in France, Caroline and Paul form a strong bond. When the war breaks out, Caroline is determined to help Paul and his wife Rena despite the risk for heartbreak. At the same time, Caroline also continues to do all she can for the war effort, including sending care packages to orphans and displaced children.
The same year, Kasia, a young woman living with her Papa, Matka, and sister Zuzanna in Lublin, Poland, is watching the invasion of Hitler’s Army high on a hill with her best friends Pietrik and Nadia. At this point, Nadia has been sheltered from the information about what would come with German occupation, but after SS soldiers raid her home, imprison her father, and send Nadia into hiding, fiesty Kasia is joins Pietrik in a local branch of the underground anti-Nazi movement. However, she gets caught and sent to Ravensbrück, the concentration work camp for women in northern Germany, along with her mother and sister.
In Dusseldorf, Germany, Nazi sympathizer Dr. Herta Oberheuser strongly believes that Hitler will improve Germany. She is a medical student with a bright future as a doctor, though under current regulations she cannot use her talents as a surgeon because she is female, and only males were allowed to be surgeons. She takes part in Bund Deutscher Madel (BDM), the female branch of Hitler’s Youth, believes the German propaganda, and is truly disgusted by anyone considered “unpure” by German standards. In 1940, Herta decides that there is no advancement for her in the city, so she answers an advertisement for employment of a female doctor and reeducator at a “women’s retreat” called Ravensbrück.
Based on the real-life Caroline Ferriday and the true tales from Ravensbrück, Hall Kelly creates a narrative that brings these three women together in one of the most chaotic and horrific historical time periods.
As most of you already know, I’m terribly fascinated by WWII fiction. There’s just something so emotional about seeing the past through these character’s eyes- whether real people or fictional. It NEVER ceases to amaze me at the cruelty and mistreatment of humans by the hands of other humans- all based on the blind faith in one leader.
Out of the main characters, I sympathized the most with Kasia and her story. I’ve talked about my great-grandma Nellie before, about how she left Poland in the 1930’s during the rise of Hilter. She was a Polish catholic, and though she wasn’t Jewish, Germans still persecuted Poles, no matter their religion. While reading about Kasia, I kept thinking, this could have been Nellie- this could have been my great-grandma. THIS COULD BE someone’s great-grandma. My heart broke as she talked about losing her friend, her mother. I cried when I found out they- Herta- mutilated her leg multiple times. The treatment of the Rabbits… I’d never heard about these women, though I had heard about the experiments done on concentration camp prisoners.
To find out that there were women like Caroline, though privileged, who felt the tight squeeze on resources and yet managed to give all they possibly could to provide for these women… I’m just in awe.
Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls kept me turning pages- all 496 of them. I enjoyed the way she worked foreign vocabulary (Polish, German, French) into the novel, and I flagged many of the Polish words to study (as I would like to return to my great-grandma’s roots one day). I relished the way she laid out the plot, and maintained the focus on these women, rather than the historical points of the war and thereafter. I also admire Hall Kelly’s character development style- in that, I felt they didn’t really develop, but were more presented as fully flushed out characters that revealed certain aspects of themselves as the situation presented itself. For example, Herta clearly didn’t change- she was unlikeable from beginning to end- but the author showed you parts of why she came off as such- her insensitivity, her cowardice.
I would absolutely recommend this to the historical fiction buffs, and anyone who enjoys WWII fiction, but in all honesty, I’d recommend this to just about anyone. As long as the reader understands the graphic content and the emotional impact this kind of read has, I think all would gain a better understanding of the Ravensbrück Rabbits and a different facet of WWII.
TL/DR: Lilac Girls is a WWII historical fiction novel that follows three main characters, and it’s definitely worth reading.
Read it? Yes!!!
Recommend it? Yes!!!
Buy it? YES!!!
If you liked this novel or review, check out these similar reads:
- Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly
- The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer
- The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
- The Girl With No Name by Diney Costeloe
- The Light Over London by Julia Kelly