Like a set of Russian nesting dolls, Ayelet Waldman's historically resonant new novel offers stories within stories, spanning a century of European wars and social movements, (mostly) ill-starred relationships, and the ambiguous aftermath of these upheavals.
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At the heart of the stories is a single object, a gold-filigreed, enamel and gemstone-encrusted peacock locket with a tiny photograph of two women friends inside. The locket, we learn, is both an image memorialized in a lost painting and an artifact looted from the famous Hungarian Gold Train. The novel's train, like its historical counterpart, contains jewelry, furs, gold and other valuables plundered by the Hungarian government from Hungary's Jews, most of them killed in the waning days of the Holocaust.
The plunder in "Love and Treasure" is seemingly continual. After the war, American generals brazenly requisition place settings, linens and furniture from the train; other soldiers pilfer its stores. A multilingual Army lieutenant, Jack Wiseman, charged with protecting the train's contents, clumsily balances conflicting loyalties — before snatching up the peacock locket, a "harbinger of ill fortune," as an emblem of lost love.
"Love and Treasure" begins in the year 2013, in Maine, with a visit by Wiseman's granddaughter, Natalie Stein, to her ailing grandfather. Consumed by a lingering guilt, though "righteous was all he'd ever wanted to be," Wiseman tasks her with the all-but-impossible mission of finding an appropriate heir to the locket.
For Stein, a lawyer reeling from both the abrupt end of a brief marriage and her grandfather's death, the chore turns out to be a welcome respite from grief. Her quest takes her to both Hungary and Israel, embroils her in an unlikely love affair — and raises questions about ownership and inheritance that mirror our current debates about looted cultural property.
In the novel, those conflicts are embodied in part by the new object of Stein's affections: Amitai Shasho, a somewhat shady art dealer whose gift for seduction enables both his womanizing and the recovery of Holocaust-era treasures for personal profit. The couple's actions, ripped from the pages of a spy thriller, include purloining the long-missing painting (by a forgotten artist named Komlós), bribing its larcenous owner, and donating the work to a Hungarian museum.
Something of a page-turner, "Love and Treasure" dares to throw readers off balance and keep them searching for resolution to dangling plot threads. At times, Waldman's prose can be clunky and repetitive — perhaps by choice, or else as a byproduct of her less-than-virtuosic handling of a difficult organizational scheme.
The novel moves back and forth in time — "time with its annihilating power," Waldman calls it — traversing the decades before and after World War II. It also repeatedly switches point of view. The most riveting section is the tale of Wiseman's failed romance, in postwar Austria, with a Hungarian Holocaust survivor named Ilona.
"Part of what he loved about her was her very brokenness," Wiseman (a name alternately apt and ironic) is smart enough to realize. But, though she may love him, Ilona also uses him and leaves him. Still, there is sufficient mystery and power in their relationship that we keep waiting for Waldman to pick up this particular narrative thread.
It turns out to be a long wait. After sections of third-person narration filtered through the sensibilities of Stein, Wiseman and Shasho, "Love and Treasure" changes gears entirely. It offers a lengthy, embroidered case study by a Hungarian psychoanalyst, Dr. Zobel, of the patient he calls Nina S. — one of the women pictured in the locket.
Dr. Zobel repeatedly protests his deep affection for his wife and his admiration for Nina, a committed suffragist who aspires to a career in medicine. But he is also prey to the sexist attitudes and dubious psychiatric tendencies of his day.
Pressed by Nina's uncle in 1913 to treat her, Dr. Zobel can't quite decide whether her rebellion and ambition constitute a mental health issue. But he does convince himself that her painful menstrual cramps derive from an early sexual trauma and excessive masturbation. Further underlining his unreliability as a narrator (and hinting at Waldman's own agenda), he tells us: "Truth sometimes demands license in the presentation of fact."
In its epilogue, "Love and Treasure" gives us a taste of what we've been craving — not a final plot twist, but rather a sense of both the solidity and mutability of the novel's primary symbol, the peacock pendant. The pendant evokes not simply "a remnant of regret" for doomed love, but a "complicated legacy of memory and forgetting." Like the diary of Anne Frank, or the pile of shoes without owners in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, it stands for nothing less than the loss of an entire world.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.
"Love and Treasure"
By Ayelet Waldman, Knopf, 334 pages, $26.95