Thursday, March 7, 2013

Review: The Secret of the Nightingale Palace by Dana Sachs

When I first heard the title of this book, I immediately assumed that it was about Japanese Americans. And in some ways it is. But I would never have dreamed that the two main characters were in fact an eighty-five year old Jewish widow from New York and her thirty something also widowed granddaughter from Memphis. How these two characters would easily connect to the expected story of the Japanese American experience in San Francisco immediately prior to and just following Pearl Harbor was a mystery. But this seemingly incongruous juxtaposition is just what Dana Sachs has presented in her latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, and has done so well as to make the connection seamless, unusual, and yet perfectly imagined.

Comic book artist Anna Rosenthal lost her husband Ford to leukemia two years ago and she's been in sort of a holding pattern ever since. She has been estranged from her grandmother for five years because the irrascible, particular, and blunt Goldie Rosenthal never did approve of Ford and made no bones about it. Goldie, having struggled and worked to rise above her poverty-filled Memphis beginnings, was used to getting her own way and so her granddaughter's refusal to see that Ford was all wrong caused a rupture that even his death couldn't heal. But the disappointment of Anna's stubborn insistence that she loved Ford was, in Goldie's eyes, only the latest in a long line of disappointments where she rejected Goldie's counsel. So when the phone rings at the beginning of the novel and it's Goldie requesting that Anna drive her from New York to San Francisco to deliver a book of beautiful Japanese artwork to the Nakamura family for whom she held it during World War II, Anna is surprised and resistant. She can think of very little as unappealing as spending two weeks driving across the country with her persnickety grandmother even if she will get to do it in Goldie's gorgeous and luxurious, antique Rolls Royce. And yet she finds herself agreeing to her grandmother's suddenly pressing mission despite misgivings.

The novel is made up of five parts, alternating between the present day road trip that Goldie and Anna are on and sixty years in the past when Goldie lived in San Francisco and was on the cusp of starting her adult life. As Anna and Goldie travel slowly across the country, they are alternately polite and antagonistic with each other, sometimes addressing their differences and other times intentionally ignoring them. They spar and draw blood as only family who loves you can but they also share moments of understanding and sympathy. The drive also gives Anna time to reflect on her life with Ford, his illness, and the stasis in which she's been trapped since his death. The other major storyline winding through the novel is the revelation of Goldie's past. She moved to San Francisco to be with her married sister and found a job as a salesgirl at Feld's Department Store. Her education in elegance and class comes through the store, its quality contents, and well-heeled clientel as well as her befriending of Mayumi Nakamura, the window display artist for Feld's and whose family is actual Japanese royalty. This time in her young life introduces Goldie to love and regret, to the need to construct her own life on her own terms, and to the knowledge that appearances must be maintained at all costs because even if they are simply a prettily decorated veil covering the truth, they are the foundation upon which everything that matters is built.

The novel is very visual, from the exquisite engravings in the book Goldie wants to return to Mayumi to her obsession with and insistence on timeless but stylish and very expensive clothing. Even the meticulously maintained Rolls Royce presents a certain picture. But the theme of appearance is carried through in other ways as well. There are the surface impressions of marriage and the hidden depths beneath their true facade, a fact that causes Anna distress as she remembers the vitriol and unhappiness in her publically loving marriage to Ford. There are descriptions of the windows Mayumi designs and the feelings these displays are meant to evoke. There's Henry Nakamura's contention to Goldie that being Jewish and being Japanese and subsequently disliked are nothing alike since the Japanese Americans are immediately identifiable whereas Goldie could hide her Jewish identity if she so chose. Coupled with looking is the idea of perspective and looking to the future. A put-together appearance leads to the sort of life Goldie always imagined and worked towards as the wife of a wealthy man. Even at eighty-five, she prefers to look forward rather than back. Even as the novel reveals her past to the reader, Goldie does not share this past with Anna, keeping from her the real reason behind her insistence on returning the prints sixty some years after they were given to her.

Sachs has woven the two stories, Goldie's past and her present with Anna, together well. The present day sections, with Anna's introspection, move slower than the portions in 1941 though. And the past Goldie is much more likable than the critical and snobbish Goldie of the present but her past formed her and its inclusion in the narrative helps to excuse some of her less likable moments.  The play between Anna and Goldie as they try to create a relationship with each other again, one based on acceptance and love rather than judgment and expectation is presented realistically and keeps the road trip portion of the novel from dragging too badly in comparison with the past sections. There are some moments, especially on the road, that don't seem to move the plot along but eventually the narrative picks back up and starts to move again.  And the ending is truly charming.  A lovely book about unexpected depths and finding your own happiness, Sachs has written a satisfying tale simultaneously both contemporary and historical of belonging and acceptance, appearance and truth, and how to find the way forward no matter what hand you're dealt.

For more information about Dana Sachs and the book check out her website, follow her on Facebook or Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


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