In “This Terrible Beauty,” author Katrin Schumann manages to grab our attention from the first page where the main character, Bettina, fingers the eight beads which rest on the strap of her camera, one for each year of her child’s life — a child she was forced to give up when she left Germany.
The story continues to weave back and forth between 1961 in Chicago, where Bettina lives and is a photographer, and 1943 in Rügen, Germany, where Bettina is an almost-adult during WWII. We are privy to Bettina’s coming of age and why she made the decisions that ultimately ended up with her in Chicago alone, bereft. And with the foreknowledge of how it all turns out — mostly — we can read — and wince — at the mistakes Bettina makes. Her mistakes are innocent and made with the best of intentions when she marries Werner, who seems gentle and kind.
But after the war is over, and they are living in the German Democratic Republic with its authoritarian regime, Bettina realizes that Werner is not exactly who she thought he was, and she realizes she may not love him. She does find love elsewhere, though. Ultimately, Werner discovers her betrayal, and it destroys her life when Werner offers her a choice: leave her child and lover and never return, or she and her lover will spend their lives in prison. Either way, she will never see her child.
Ten years later, Bettina finds that she has the means to return to Germany to see what has become of her past. But Schumann carefully weaves the past and the present together in a way that keeps us on tenterhooks as we turn page after page to find out what becomes of Bettina and what has become of her lover and her child.
Like real life, the ending for her is not perfect, but it does somehow feel satisfying in that Bettina chooses to sacrifice her own happiness for that of others. True love is when we give up our dreams and aspirations if they would conflict with the best future for our loved ones. It’s certainly a satisfying ending, and this historical fiction is a very interesting dive into life in post-WWII Germany.
First posted on Bookreporter.com.
Please note: This review is based on the advance review copy provided by Lake Union Publishing, the publisher, for review purposes.