Fans of Pam Jenoff know that her historical fiction titles are enthralling, with admirable sympathetic characters, and based on real incidents. “Code Name Sapphire” features three such women whose bravery, determination, and strength are fully tested during the harsh and cruel Nazi rule in WWII.
The three women include Micheline, a Frenchwoman who, with her brother Matteo, runs a resistance network smuggling fallen British and French airmen out of Nazi occupied areas through Spain so they can continue the fight against Hitler. Hannah is ten years older than Micheline. She lost her husband to the Nazis while they were working in the resistance together in Berlin. Hannah was on a ship that was sent back to Europe from Cuba when that country decided not to allow the refugees to land. She is desperate to leave for America as the Nazis know she was responsible for creating anti-Hitler propaganda. She finds refuge in Brussels with her cousin Lily, who lives there with her husband, a doctor. But their lives are put in danger due to not just the Nazis, but to their own actions.
Jenoff tells the story through the voices of each woman. While the narrative is third person, each chapter is clearly labeled with the name of the person from whose point of view the chapter is told. Thus we learn of Lily’s reluctance to do anything that might change the status quo of her comfortable life. So far, the Nazi occupation has not changed her day-to-day existence much as she lives in her beautiful neighborhood, shops at stores where there is plenty of food, and is able to attend cultural events with her husband. Hannah, who has joined Lily’s household upon her return to Europe, knows better. She’s seen what happened in Germany and knows that once the Nazi occupation has begun, it’s just a matter of time before all Jews feel the lash of the fascist whip. Micheline is only in her early 20s, but has dedicated her life to helping the resistance and has become the leader of one branch.
From the very first page, when Micheline spontaneously enables and executes the rescue of a downed soldier, we are hooked. The action is virtually nonstop, but with Jenoff’s very capable writing, the nail-biting suspense doesn’t detract from the character- building that gives us insight into the three women and why they make the decisions that define them. She takes us from the society drawing rooms that Lily occupies to the work camp where people are sent before deportation to concentration camps. We are provided a glimpse into the horror of the camps, and we also see the heroics and selflessness of many camp residents who help others even in the face of death.
While in her novels Jenoff presents us with the worst of humanity, in her main characters she shows us those whom we might want to emulate. Her heroes are not idealistic models of perfection, but rather people like us with frailties, but who, through their actions, transcend their faults to perform acts that are purely for the benefit of others. There are twists that are very unexpected, jarring almost, but which clearly demonstrate that even the best of us can only do what we think is right. We don’t always know the outcome of our actions, and we are, after all, only human. We make human mistakes. And so do the women in this novel.
As in each of Jenoff’s novels, we are left feeling inspired in many ways — inspired to make sure that the atrocities that occurred during WWII never happen again, but also to make our lives count for something. To try to behave in a manner that shows even a fraction of the selflessness and dedication that Jenoff’s heroes demonstrate. To be better people. And that’s what much good literature does — it inspires.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.