Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Beauty out of ugliness

The Butterfly and the Violin by Kristy Cambron


Sera James has spent the last two years searching for the painting of a beautiful girl with her violin, which was painted in the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. When she finds a reproduction in the home of William Hanover III, she decides - against her better judgment - to join forces with him to find it, even though the Hanover family fortune could end up lost to the painting's owner, according to the terms of William's grandfather's last will. Their search brings them more than they both bargained for, not the least of which is the story of the girl in the painting and the man she loved over 70 years ago.

There are hundreds (if not thousands) of novels about the Holocaust, many of which flash back and forth between that era and present day events. There are also many stories that include gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during that terrible time, some of whom end up in the camps themselves. I'm sure there are also some books that have characters that were the artistic pawns of the Nazi regime, playing music or creating pieces of art as good publicity for the camps. But as far as I know, there are few novels - if any - that bring all of these elements together, and particularly one where all of the major protagonists are non-Jews. This story is just that, and it was precisely this unusual conglomeration that drew me to this novel.

On the one hand, we have the young Adele Von Bron, a violin prodigy and Austria's sweetheart, whose father is a high-ranking officer in Hitler's local army. Her love for Vladimir Nicolai, the handsome cellist in her orchestra, leads her to learn about, and join him in his underground work trying to help the last Jews in Vienna get out to safety. But they are caught and sentenced to "reeducation" at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. Of course, the first thing that Adele learns is that her only hope to survive is to play in Birkenau's newly formed women's orchestra. On the other hand we have Sera and William, two strangers in today's world who are brought together in the search for this painting and its owner. Obviously, this part of the story also includes a bit of romance as an aside to their parallel/collaborative investigations. The major thing that connects all four of them is their devotion to their Christian faith.

Before I discuss this further, I want to note that I have the utmost appreciation and deepest admiration for the many brave righteous gentiles of WWII. I also fully acknowledge that the Nazis never intended to exterminate only Jews - they had many other "undesirables" on their lists, including no small number of upstanding Christians who did anything (no matter how small) to oppose them. Because of this, I feel that novels such as this one must be published and promoted as much as possible, and kudos to Cambron for writing it.

However, this book did seem to be somewhat flat for me, as hard as that is to believe. We all know that the Holocaust is arguably the most emotionally charged event in known history, and any story that revolves around it should be heavily tinged by that. So why was it that with all the horrors included here I still felt disconnected? At first I worried that I've been immunized to its effects because of my Jewish heritage. But I don't think that is the case - not considering the amount of tears I've been known to shed each and every year on Holocaust Memorial Day. Another possibility was the non-Jewish aspects detracted from the overall emotional impact that this story should have evoked. This too is doubtful, because none of that was overpowering. So my only conclusion is that the author made some mistakes in the story line that ended up suppressing the gut-wrenching pathos that this book could have evoked.

Aside from that, Cambron's writing is clear and evocative, which makes for a very easy and enjoyable read, and points to a very worthy talent. The switching between the two eras worked well and wasn't at all confusing; each section had its own distinctive style and language. Sadly, because she wasn't able to tap into the sorrow enough to strike the emotional chords I was hoping to feel, I have to give this book only three out of five stars. Despite this, I wholeheartedly recommend this to fans of Christian fiction as I'm sure that they will be able to identify with the characters better than I, and the subject matter is one that should not be ignored. 

"The Butterfly and the Violin" by Kristy Cambron, published by Thomas Nelson, released July 8, 2014 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris and Better World Books, or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me the advance reader copy of this novel via NetGalley. This review originally appeared on my Times of Israel Blog.

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