It’s been a long time since I’ve swallowed a whole book over a weekend without stopping – it feels good! Yet strangely enough, I’m not completely won over by the book. Call me picky if you like!
Anne Wiazemsky is the granddaughter of famous conservative French author François Mauriac and is born in Berlin at the end of WWII. This book is her mother Claire’s story, how she got to Berlin and met her father, an exiled Russian prince nicknamed Wia [pronounced v-ee-ah, just in case you were woundering]. It’s a melange between facts and fiction, a patchwork of letters and diary excerpts and imagined scenes of Claire’s daily life and thoughts between Paris and Berlin.
Claire Mauriac seems to have always been struggling with being the daughter of a personality. At 27 when the book starts, she still is seen by her family as a little girl, expected to conform and get married with her rather dull fiancé, who has spent the whole war in a prisoner’s camp in Germany. Before the war, after dropping out of school, she and her sister received a lot of male attention, called “the delicious little Mauriac girls” in a charming but patronizing way. Who knows what she’d have done without the war! But Claire finds her true self as an ambulance driver of the French Red Cross. She is full of energy; she loves danger and is unafraid of taking risks, even using her ambulance at night to carry arms for the French resistance (which is strictly forbidden as it would compromise Red Cross’ neutrality and good treatment by the Nazis). Among Red Cross workers she’s at last recognized for her real skills and not for her family. So at the official end of the war in France, she’s afraid of losing this independance and sense of purpose. Going back to her family and her fiancé depresses her.
When in late 1945 her Red Cross boss offers her to go to Berlin to work for the Displaced Persons’ repatriation, she jumps at the opportunity. Berlin is at Hour Zero; people live in ruins and die of hunger and misery. Her team’s job is to track down French prisoners of war, and negotiate with Soviets to take them home. It’s a job full of sadness and hardships, but also of hard-won victories. Claire and her colleagues are so lucky to be alive, their lives at Kurfurstendamm is rather privileged and joyful. All the more as she meets Wia, a young Russian-born French man, from an old Russian aristocratic family in exile in Paris. The contrast between the two families and the two future spouses couldn’t be greater, but they are in love and determined to get married.
This true story has the material of epic adventure and great romance, but I was annoyed by the voice. The writing felt a bit clumsy, rather dry, and Claire comes out like an immature young girl, perhaps what she was at the beginning of the book but not later as she grows into a courageous, independant young woman. I wanted to know more about the background stories of the other girls at the Displaced people office, to understand the distance between the Mauriac parents and her daughter, the cultural gaps between the two families, but all this was rather suggested rather than addressed. The result, sadly, is that I wasn’t really engaged by Claire. All the feelings are muted – her passion for Wia, the horrors of war, even gun fighting all seem superficial. Claire is not as fascinating as she ought to be, and I thought that she and we readers were a bit short-changed. The transition between fiction and non-fiction are seamless, so perhaps I can explain the clumsy voice by the true handwriting of Wiazemsky’s mother, but in that case, I dream of what this books would have been if she’d decided to write herself her mother’s story without all the non-fiction material!