“The Girl from Berlin” is another wonderful novel by Ronald H. Balson in which he continues with Catherine and Liam, his attorney/detective main character couple, who take cases in which the reader gets to travel back in time to see the background of those cases, as Catherine and Liam are learning about those events. The stories are especially riveting because of Balson’s ability to create the dual story, cutting off each story at a cliffhanger moment, making the reader continue reading to find out what happens next, until before the reader looks up, the day has gone by and the book is read.
When Catherine and Liam are approached by Tony, a friend of theirs who asks them to travel to Tuscany, Italy, to help his aunt who is in danger of losing her home and her vineyard, they are skeptical. But when they arrive and start researching what is happening to Tony’s Aunt Gabi, they become determined to help her. The road is tricky, and at first it appears hopeless. But Gabi sends Catherine a translated memoir from Ada Baumgartner, who has written about her life during the Holocaust.
Through Ada’s memoir, Balson takes readers not just back to Berlin in the middle of World War II, but also into the heart of Ada, a violinist whose most fervent desire, heart and soul, is to be a famous player with a major symphony orchestra. That’s difficult in the 1930s when women, no matter how accomplished and talented, were not given seats in major orchestras. They might play solos, but were not ever permanent members of the symphony. And Ada Baumgarten is not just the wrong gender, she’s Jewish.
Her talent is undeniable. Her father, a famous concertmaster with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, has taught her everything he knows. Ada’s playing is brilliant, and those around her recognize it. Ada’s path takes her to Bologna, Italy, where she plays with the symphony orchestra there, as one of the first women to play with a prominent orchestra.
All of the action takes place in present-day Tuscany and WWII Germany and Italy. It’s really more Ada’s story than Gabi’s, or even Catherine and Liam’s. And Ada’s story is riveting. The reader will laugh, sympathize, and weep with what happens in Ada’s life. And for much of the story, the reader will be frantically turning pages to make sure that Ada is all right.
As with many stories about the Holocaust and those who didn’t leave Germany until it was too late, the reader will, with hindsight, get frustrated that more Jews didn’t leave when they had the chance. But reading books such as this one gives a more nuanced reality of life then. Not all Jews had someone to sponsor them in America. There were quotas, and going to a surrounding country wouldn’t help at all. In fact, those who went to France or Italy often just postponed their fate.
One of the ironies in the story is that many of the Nazis who hated the Jews loved classical music. While they attended symphony performances, they also sent Jewish performers to concentration camps. And when Ada stands up to one Nazi, she gains a life-long enemy.
Balson’s writing is masterful. His plot and believable dialogue are just part of what makes this book a gripping read. The emotions he is able to elicit through the plight of the characters in the story, the joys and the sorrows, are universal. And especially in this story, Balson reaches into the heart of a musician and realistically expresses the feelings that a true musician feels and experiences when talking music and playing on a great stage with other superb players. Music lovers and opera lovers will get additional pleasure reading about Ada’s performances and her thoughts about music. His first person narrative in the form of Ada’s memoir is superb writing.
And although the characters of Catherine and Liam are continuing characters, each of Balson’s books can be read as a stand alone novel. The main story is the historical one, and Catherine and Liam are the conduits through which those stories can be told. That being said, the current-day mystery that they solve is a fascinating one as well. But the emotional part of the present-day story is the love of Gabi for her land — all she has left of her family — and Ada’s love for her family and her music. The twists and the turns and the webs of corruption that end up reaching from Nazi Germany to vineyards in Italy make this a novel not to be missed.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, for review purposes.