Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
Published by Ballantine Books on April 5th, 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
“But it’s fitting in a way—Father loved the fact that a lilac only blossoms after a harsh winter.”
I love reading historical fiction. It is, by far, one of my favourite genres. Even though it can seem like I exclusively read YA. I’m not sure why, but I tend to gravitate towards novels set during World War II and particularly focused on women during that time.
Even if the storylines and characters are different, the women are always extremely brave in these horrific situations. I appreciate seeing relationships build under terrible circumstances, but there’s the mutual feeling that you need to create tight-knit friendships just to survive.
In Lilac Girls, the story revolves around three women from different countries — Poland, Germany, and America — whose lives are changed before, during, and after WWII. All three characters are based on the lives of real women in history.
That was truly the most interesting part about this book. Just knowing that these women existed during a time of extreme hardship. It’s easy to love Caroline for her generosity and Kasia for her determination and hope. But I found myself struggling through Herta’s chapters.
Herta Oberheuser was a Nazi physician and war criminal and I found myself feeling sick just reading what she did to the women at Ravensbrück. It was unsettling to see her transform from a naïve doctor looking to help people to someone who steadfastly believed in gross and inhumane experiments.
Unfortunately, I’m in the minority of not showering this book with praise. The characters weren’t well developed. I knew I was supposed to care about Kasia and her fellow prisoners, but the writing felt empty and detached. I think that’s partly due to the use of the three intertwined narratives. It struck me as clumsy and ineffective.
At many points during the book, the story dragged on. It became increasingly tedious with Caroline’s narrative going on and on about her pretty dresses and charity parties. I just felt like it was all filler.
In the end, my mind started wandering and I felt less invested in the story with each chapter.
If you’re looking for a historical fiction novel about Ravensbrück, I highly recommend reading Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth E. Wein.
Wein’s writing is incredible. Even though you know it’s a work based on imagination, it felt like I was reading a memoir. Her characters are dynamic and interesting even if you don’t always agree with their motivations.
I can see why people would like Lilac Girls, but it wasn’t for me. I can think of other historical fiction novels to recommend instead.