Opening with nonagenarians Dimitri and Katerina Komninos meeting up with their grandson, university student Mitsos, and offering him the reason behind their passionate refusal to ever leave Thessaloniki to live near their children in England or America, this is the tale of a vibrant city, a country's history, and an enduring love. Dimitri Komninos is born in 1917 into a thriving Thessaloniki peacefully populated by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. His birth has been long awaited by his wealthy father and his beautiful mother and he arrives just as the Thessaloniki is consumed by a raging fire that destroys nearly the entire city. As his father rebuilds their fabric empire first and eventually the showpiece home overlooking the sea, Dimitri and his mother live on Irini Street, in the humble home in which his mother grew up surrounded by all sorts of different and wonderful people. Dimitri's character is formed here in the loving and tolerant atmosphere.
Katerina is a Greek born in Smyrna who escaped the atrocities in that city on a refugee boat but in the process was separated from her mother and infant sister. She is taken under the wing of a surrogate mother, Eugenia, and becomes a small but loved part of that family as they make their way to Thessaloniki. And it is to Irini Street and the home of the Muslim family who were sent to Turkey along with the rest of the city's Muslim inhabitants that Katerina Sarafoglou and her adopted family come to settle in and make a new life.
Katerina and Dimitri and the rest of the children on the street play and grow together until finally the new Komninos mansion is complete and Dimitri and his mother are removed by his cold and determined father from the unsuitable and too democratic Irini Street. And from this point onward, Katerina and Dimitri meet mostly by chance as they live the lives expected of them. Katerina learns embroidery and becomes one of the city's most accomplished seamstresses. Dimitri goes to school and is determined to become a doctor.
When World War II intrudes, Dimitri joins the Greeks fighting against the Italian invasion and then stays on in the mountains with the communists to resist the German occupation. Katerina works for the Moreno family, a Jewish family who own the very best tailoring shop in Thessaloniki and dear neighbors on Irini Street, all of them initially protected because of their skill. But the Morenos, like the rest of Thessaloniki's Jewish population, are eventually taken to Poland on Hitler's trains.
The city of Thessaloniki suffers blow after blow as the history of the twentieth century and that of Greece as a whole is writ large upon its streets and its people. Katerina and Dimitri's experiences at the heart of the upheavals are completely realistic given the place that they live. And through all of it, from the fire in 1917 that heralds Dimitri's birth to 2007 as they share their long and complicated story with their grandson, they have persevered, tried to make their world a good place, and simply lived their lives the best they possibly could because even in the face of disappointment, tragedy, joy, and celebration, life goes on.
The framing device of telling the story to Mitsos is a bit distracting in the beginning but comes to feel natural by the end of the novel. As simply the repository of the tale, Mitsos is undeveloped and his reaction to his grandparents' story is perhaps unearned as a result. But Dimitri and Katerina are well-developed characters and their choices throughout the story feel authentic. The political tension between Dimitri and his father is completely absolute even when Dimitri realizes that none of the groups fighting has clean hands and his realization is never fully explored as it might make his father a bit less of a villain although given his collaberation with the Germans, that's unlikely. The love story between Dimitri and Katerina is muted by their experiences and the necessity and commitments they each have so it's really not the forefront of the novel but that suits the historical saga aspect better. The ending feels telescoped, with the years up until and including the 50's drawn out and elaborately told and the years following the recovery from the war quickly sketched in bare bones. Over all though, this was a fascinating look at a place about which I knew so little and a time in history that played out similarly but with unique permutations all over the world.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.