Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Review: The Sweetness of Forgetting by Kristin Harmel

When my husband and I got married, we received congratulatory cards and gifts from family members that my husband didn't recognize. Many of these relatives drew family trees on the inside of the card so we'd know where they were on the branches relative to my husband. It's one thing not to know how you are related to someone but it's another thing entirely to find out that your family tree is completely different than you ever knew, that it, in fact, not only has branches you never knew about but reveals your family's history secrets and a heritage that changes everything. Hope McKenna-Smith, in Kristin Harmel's novel The Sweetness of Forgetting, finds just this.

Hope is a recently divorced single mother running her family's bakery business on Cape Cod and trying to hold onto the remaining two members of her small family. Her daughter Annie, closing in on the surly teen years, is angry about the divorce and life in general and taking it out on Hope. Her grandmother Mamie is in a care facility as she succumbs to Alzheimer's disease, slipping away by degrees. Fearing that the past she's hidden guiltily for so long will be forever buried in her failing mind, Mamie confronts Hope on one of her lucid days, giving her a list of names and requesting that she find out what happened so long ago in Paris to each of the people listed. But Hope, on the verge of losing the family bakery, doesn't see how she can possibly fulfill Mamie's request. Thinking to do some research from home, she only uncovers more questions, ones that she and Annie agree must be pursued. And so, failing bakery or no, she heads to France to uncover her own roots, a journey that takes her from a Holocaust memorial to a mosque and back in time to the fairy tales about true love that Mamie used to tell her.

Told mainly from Hope's perspective, the narrative is also sprinkled with chapters narrated by Mamie. Her chapters show clear signs of her disease, sometimes offering clarity as she wades through memories of her long repressed past and other times showing her confusion in the present. As Hope learns more about her grandmother and an extended family she never knew existed, she also learns about the loss of once in a lifetime love that froze Mamie's heart so long ago, damaging Hope's mother Josephine's ability to love, and causing Hope herself to settle in her life and to cynically question the existence of real, true, and deep love. But this is also a novel of second chances and learning to overcome the damage done by a heart wrapped in ice, of family and the impact of history.

Although the women in this novel lament their inability to love, their actions belie their words. They may not be demonstrative but they certainly love each other deeply. Hope's research into her family and their origins and their fates goes surprisingly easily but some of the historical information about the Holocaust victims and the unlikely people who risked their own lives to save others is fascinating stuff. Hope and Mamie are appealing characters, as is secondary character and potential love interest Gavin. Hope's sadness at losing her vibrant grandmother, at her own perceived failures in life, and at her difficulty parenting Annie is authentic and vivid. The baked goods recipes at the start of every chapter sound delectable and, in many cases, presage the content of the chapter well. With their variety giving hints as to Mamie's escape from Paris and eventually leading Hope to the exact people she needs to speak to in order to piece together more of her grandmother's story, they do work cleverly within the narrative but the easy coincidences can stretch credulity a bit and they allow for a very rushed end to Hope's quest for information. Over all though, this was an engrossing, quick read that offers new insight into the damage that war inflicts on down through the generations and the way that love can survive even the most horrific situations.

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

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