Saturday, March 27, 2021

The Book of Lost Names Leaves Me Wanting More—And Not in a Good Way

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's 1942 and Paris is fast becoming a dangerous place for Jews.  This is brought home one terrifying night when Eva Traube's father is arrested by the Gestapo.  A chance visit to a neighbor is all that saved Eva and her mother from being taken as well.  With their names on the Nazis' round-up list, the women have targets on their backs.  Despite her mother's insistence that she's not leaving Paris without her husband, Eva forces the issue.  She forges new papers for them and the two women are able to sneak out of the city to Aurignon, a small mountain village in the Free Zone of south central France.

When the leader of a local Resistance group sees how well Eva's papers are forged, he urges her to put her skills to use by helping to make false papers for the Jewish children the group is smuggling into Switzerland.  Although reluctant to put herself and her mother at risk, she agrees in exchange for shelter and promises for help in securing her father's release.  As Eva systematically gives the fleeing kids new names, thus erasing their Jewish identities, she grows distressed as she realizes some of them will be too young to remember their true names when the war ends.  Using an old, forgotten religious text, she records every one so the information will never be lost.  With tension heating up in Aurignon, however, Eva's work and the secret record book are both in imminent danger...

Sixty-five years later, Eva is stunned to see a newspaper article about books recovered from Nazi stores after the war.  Among them is one she never thought she would see again.  Does she have the courage to revisit the traumas of her past in order to reveal the secrets she once protected with her life?

I find World War II endlessly fascinating, so I've read tons of books set during that time period.  Because so many of them are so similar, I'm always on the lookout for those that bring something new to the genre.  The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel has been getting so much buzz that I thought it might do just that.  And it does.  Sort of.  I've read few World War II novels about the French experience, so the book's setting was a new one for me.  The forgery angle was also one I hadn't really encountered before.  Both of these elements made the novel interesting.  The rest of it, though?  Meh.  The characters are pretty cliché and there are no surprises in the plot.  It's a very run-of-the-mill story, really, and one that is made even worse by stale, simplistic prose (I felt like I was reading a YA novel or even a middle-grade one, at times) and a predictable plot (I saw the twists coming from miles away and the novel's final scene is obvious from the get-go).  The characters are likable because, for the most part, they're good people doing good things, but none of them are developed enough to feel like real human beings.  Eva drove me a little nuts because she doesn't really do anything.  Yes, she risks her life by creating forged documents, but it's all very benign—she's in no real danger until the very end of the book.  Thus, for a war story, The Book of Lost Names is actually fairly dull, with not a lot of action to keep it exciting.  It's really more of a romance than anything else.  Since I never felt any real sparks between Eva and Rémy anyway, I didn't care all that much about the love story.  I wanted more derring-do, more action, more suspense.  

Don't get me wrong, The Book of Lost Names isn't a bad book.  It kept my attention enough that I read to the end.  It's also cleaner than most adult novels, which I appreciate.  My problem is I just wanted more from it—more originality, more character development, more emotion, more excitement, etc.  In the end, unfortunately, this was just an average read for me.     

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of other novels about World War II, although no specific titles are coming to mind)

Grade:


If this were a movie, it would be rated:


for brief, mild language (no F-bombs), violence, and mild sexual content

To the FTC, with love:  Another library fine find

7 comments:

  1. Oh that's too bad this one was a bit lacking. I love this time period too and this one has been on my TBR but it sounds a bit flat - especially given the premise.

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  2. I understand your frustration. Once we have read more about a certain subject, the new book has to be extremely interesting and diffferent in order to fascinate us.

    If you haven't read Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, that's a book about WWII in France and very well written.

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  3. Too bad this one didn't measure up for you Susan.

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  4. I missed your last couple of TTTs, between being busy and trying to shield my eyes from upcoming releases, but i miss talking to you so hi!

    This is one I've been considering reading, so it's too bad it missed the mark for you. I'm still encouraged, though, by your mention of it being clean, and even the simplistic prose. I actually don't read a ton of WWII fiction anymore, so it sounds like it might be the kind of slower story I enjoy.

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  5. Sad that a book with so much potential, and with such an interesting premise, ending up being average and predictable. That's too bad.

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  6. Like you seem to be, I'm kind of burned out on WWII fiction right now...even the covers of all the novels set then have started to be so alike that I can no longer remember which goes to which story I've read. But, yes, I'd probably still go for something that seems to be not just more of the same old same-old...so thanks for the warning.

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  7. You will excuse me for being skeptical but I really worry about how non-Jews write about the Holocaust. Except for The Last Train to London, which blew me away, mostly these authors get too much wrong for me to believe they did their research properly.

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