Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review: The Puzzle King by Betsy Carter

I can't begin to imagine leaving my country and immigrating to another as an unaccompanied child. My own children would forget their heads if they weren't firmly attached to their bodies. And yet countless numbers of children were hugged and kissed by their mothers and fathers and put on a boat to America in search of a better life and more opportunity than they could ever hope to have staying where they were. Betsy Carter has taken family lore and woven a story for two such children who grew up to live the immigrant's dream and to help countless others escape the gathering clouds of WWII.

The novel opens with the beautiful Flora Phelps standing in line at the American consulate in Stuttgart, Germany determined to get her family out of Hitler's Germany and setting the stage for the tale of Flora and husband Simon's lives as immigrants from Lithuania and Germany respectively. The story then immediately drops back in time to just before he turn of the century and switches focus to introduce little Simon Phelps. His widowed mother worked for months to be able to send 9 year old Simon to America, a place full of the opportunities that his native Vilna didn't hold. When she kissed him goodbye, she told him that she and all of his siblings would join him when he was grown and had a house. And so this artistic young boy travelled across an ocean and stumbled upon a boarding house of good people and set about making his way in this new world, working and going to school both.

Meanwhile, Flora Grossman also emigrated to America, sent as a girl from Germany to live with her older sister in the home of her mother's relatives. She is raised in relative comfort and easily assimilates into her new country, although unlike her older sister she does not try to hide or deny her Jewish heritage. Going to a dance with her sister one night, she meets the sweet and shy Simon Phelps and ultimately marries the talented and innovative man.

Simon's phenomenal success in the advertising business doesn't entirely hide the sorrow he feels at being unable to locate any of his family back in Vilna and so Simon embraces Flora's family wholeheartedly. As they are unable to have their own children, they dote on Flora's niece Edith, inviting her to come to them from Germany to recover well from a serious illness. Through Edith's eyes, the austerity of Germany post-WWI and the hardships faced, especially by the Jews, are terribly evident and in complete contrast to the life that Simon and Flora live in America. All is not perfect for them either as anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head. But it is what is not said in younger sister Margot's letters from Germany that is most alarming. As the news becomes more and more troubling, the narrative picks up speed racing to the conclusion foreshadowed in the prologue.

As a story of immigrants, this is a familiar one: person comes to America and through hard work becomes a phenomenal success. What is unusual is the mournful looking backward towards the family left behind or lost. The desire to be reunited drives the plot through decades, even before liberating their Jewish families becomes a matter of life and death. The beginning and middle of the book are evenly paced and solidly written. The ending is much more rushed and scantily written, leaving it feeling slightly imcomplete. Perhaps Carter felt more able to elaborate and flesh out the tale when there was no family history available to her and was more constrained once she reached the point where history takes up again. Flora and Simon were both lovely characters complete with the small personality quirks that made them fully realized and realistic. And Carter has captured beautifully the desire for assimilation felt so strongly by many immigrants in the enticing and ultimately sad character of Flora's glamorous sister Seema. The importance of family, the forces that shape us, and what drives us to rise above the ordinary are all here between these pages offering book clubs a wealth of discussion topics. Those interested in the immigrant experience, in the air in America prior to WWII, and Jewish life from the turn of the century until the eve of Hitler's ultimate dominance will also enjoy this read.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.


  1. WWII and Jewish...Sounds like a book right up my alley. I'll put it on my to-read list.

    By the way, I'm reading "The Instructions" by Adam Levin right now. It's a long book (1,030 pages) but I'm enjoying it (saw your "Jewish Literature Challenge" tag).

  2. Very nice review, thanks for sharing.

  3. Sounds like a good one. Thanks for the review

  4. I have been curious about this one :)


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