Chicago lawyer Catherine Lockhart and her husband, private detective Liam Taggart, have a reputation for solving mysteries from the WWII era, which is why Lena Woodward, an elderly widow and Holocaust survivor, asks them to help her. Lena intends to keep a promise she made long ago: to find her friend Karolina’s long-lost twins. “She was my dear, dear friend,” Lena tells them. “She saved my life, but in the end I could not save hers.” Although doubtful at their chances of success, Catherine and Liam agree to hear Lena out.
Lena’s heartrending and suspenseful account, which begins with her childhood in the Polish town of Chrzanów, is easily the book’s most compelling aspect. The format feels awkward at first; the two timelines (present and past) don’t appear in alternating chapters, as is more common for multi-period novels. Instead, the majority of Lena’s story is told through her dialogue. To Catherine and Liam, Lena reveals her plight as a Jewish girl forced to survive on her own in a danger-filled land, distraught after hearing her parents and disabled younger brother carted away by the Germans. Through her eyes, readers will experience her risky flight through the rural Polish countryside; her work at a German-run garment factory back in Chrzanów, under the supervision of a good-looking Jewish manager; and her reunion there with Karolina, whose pregnancy forces the young women to make desperate decisions.
Lena’s account of survival and immense bravery was inspired by the real-life experiences of Fay Scharf Waldman, a woman who came to one of Ronald Balson’s book signings for an earlier novel and gave him permission to fictionalize her story. Catherine and Liam’s occasional banter about the baby they’re expecting feels jarringly superficial in comparison, but their roles in Lena’s pursuit of the truth become more intriguing and complicated when Lena’s son, Arthur, gets involved. He claims his mother suffers from a senile obsession with the past, and that the investigative couple are trying to fleece her out of her money. Balson is a Chicago trial attorney, and he skillfully leads readers through the tangled legalities of Arthur’s petition and Catherine’s daring response to it.
The novel’s functional, efficient prose gets the job done and ensures a brisk pace up through the dramatic ending, which is worth waiting for.
Karolina's Twins was published by St. Martin's Press in September (hb, 306pp). Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy.