Sunday, March 3, 2019

Mini-Review: The Girl They Left Behind

Because I'm incapable of saying no, I've been neck-deep in what I call "obligation reading" since the dawn of the new year.  Sometimes this is a drag, and sometimes it's a way for me to flex my long dormant hardcore reviewing muscles, a reminder of those days when random books showed up on my doorstep and I read them.  Happily, most of what I've been obligated to read has turned out to be pretty good, which brings me to The Girl They Left Behind, a debut historical fiction novel, by Roxanne Veletzos.  It started out a bit slow for me, but caught fire once the Soviets got their claws into eastern Europe.

Inspired by family history, the story opens with an abandoned girl, no more than a toddler, being found outside an apartment building.  Her parents, fleeing into the night from the Bucharest pogrom, are faced with an impossible decision, ultimately leaving their daughter behind.  She is found by a building resident and taken to a nearby orphanage where she is adopted by a wealthy couple, Anton and Despina Goza.

Despite World War II raging across Europe, life is good for the Goza family.  Little Natalia is doted on, attends Catholic school, and is becoming an accomplished piano player.  Despina is a consummate hostess and Anton the successful owner of a stationary store, after a childhood of poverty and desperation.  There are atrocities all around them, and they carry on - until the war draws to a close, the bombings begin without ceasing, and Romania is "liberated" by the Soviets.  The Iron Curtain falls and life as the Goza's knew it is over.

The story is told in three parts - going from Anton and Despina, to Natalia, to Victor, a young man that Anton befriends during the war who becomes a high ranking official in the Communist government.  And behind the curtain is the story of Natalia's birth parents.  The young couple forced to make an impossible decision in the hopes they will all survive and be reunited one day.

It took me a while to sink into this story.  The first part, covering the adoption is necessary as set-up, but not as riveting as the latter portion of the book, when the tale shifts to an older Natalia's viewpoint and we get the tightening of the Soviet noose around the Romanian people.  To be perfectly frank, World War II as a historical fiction backdrop has taken on a been-there-done-that feel.  What's been less common is post-War stories.  Stories of people "liberated" by the Soviets.  In other words, yeah war is over - but at what cost?  And this story, in part, addresses that.

Since this blog is largely frequented by romance readers, the question probably foremost on your minds is: "Sure Wendy, but does it have a happy ending?"  Well?  Sort of?  Bittersweet is probably the best way to put it.  Natalia finds answers to what became of her biological parents, but it's not a book where everyone is reunited at the end, holding hands, singing Kumbaya and sharing bottles of Coca-Cola in a meadow.  It ends the way, I suspect, it did for many Eastern European immigrants post-World War II.  Trying to carve out better lives for themselves and reunite with the loved ones still back in the old country, stuck behind an Iron Curtain slowly suffocating them.

After a slow beginning I really fell into this story.  It was very engrossing in parts, and I learned stuff - which is always an added bonus when reading historical fiction.  This debut novel has garnered a fair amount of praise and it's easy to see why.

Final Grade = B

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