Sunday, May 09, 2021

Those Who Are Saved by Alexis Landau, a tense novel of motherly love during WWII

Times of war force people into agonizing decisions with haunting repercussions. In her uneven yet hard-hitting sophomore novel, Landau (The Empire of the Senses, 2015) introduces Vera Volosenkova, a wealthy Russian Jewish immigrant in 1940 France.

After receiving notice to report for internment, she and her husband, Max, worried about conditions in the camp, place their four-year-old daughter, Lucie, into her governess Agnes’ care. They assume they won’t be away long, and Agnes “can always bring Lucie home with her to Oradour-sur-Glane,” Vera reasons.

Nearly five years later, in California, Vera contemplates her broken marriage and stalled writing career. She and Max were unable to reclaim Lucie before escaping, and Vera constantly second-guesses her choice. Subsumed by anxiety and feeling lost, Vera begins an affair with a Hollywood screenwriter, Sasha, a kind man with a complicated past.

The plot feels fragmented and slow midway through, and anyone familiar with French WWII history will guess the basic outline. Landau confidently illuminates her settings and her characters’ psyches, though, and Vera’s unwavering resolve to find Lucie amid the chaos of postwar France feels arrestingly real.

Those Who Are Saved was published by Putnam in February; I wrote this review for Booklist's Jan 1 issue (reprinted with permission). 

The novel is interlinked with the author's debut, The Empire of the Senses (which I loved), via its secondary characters. It can easily be read alone.

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