Thursday, March 18, 2021

Book Review: Those Who Are Saved

By Jami Denison

Nearly every mother has had that sinking feeling at least once: You’re in the mall or the grocery store; you look down, and your child, who was right there just a second ago, is gone. Whether that moment lasts mere seconds or much longer, that horrible, stomach-falling sensation can never be forgotten. And it lasts until your child is found. 

Imagine feeling that way for years.

In Those Who Are Saved, historical fiction writer Alexis Landau’s second novel, a split-second decision ends up putting Vera an ocean apart from her four-year-old daughter Lucie. As Russian Jews living in France in the 1930s, Vera and her husband Max believe they are safe from the Germans, and ignore friends who urge them to flee to America. But one morning they awaken to the news that foreign nationals are being rounded up and put into French interment camps. Believing it’s a temporary situation, they leave French-born Lucie with her Catholic governess and report to the camps. But when news hits that France is sending the Jews to concentration camps, Max, Vera and their friends escape. There’s no way to get Lucie as they trek to freedom… and eventually find their way to California. While Max finds work as a composer for Hollywood studios, Vera is frozen in her panic over Lucie and her guilt in leaving her. As the news gets worse and worse and the years pass, Vera wonders if she’ll ever see her daughter again.

While I’ve read a lot of historical fiction around the World War II time period, this book is a gut punch like no other book I’ve read. Parents are supposed to put their children first, but what does that actually mean? In the interment camp, Vera is grateful that Lucie is being well-cared for elsewhere while the camp children grow feral. But behind her back, the other mothers judge Vera, saying they’d rather have their children with them no matter what the circumstances, and what kind of mother could leave her daughter behind? When Vera judges Max’s concern for Lucie insufficient, it cracks the marriage in ways that are unrepairable. 

Landau tells the tale from three (third person) points-of-view: Vera, Lucie, and Sasha, a Hollywood screenwriter with a mysterious past whose story intersects Vera’s. The juxtaposition of Vera’s luscious life in L.A. with Lucie’s hard-scrabble existence in war-torn France is jarring. Even Vera herself realizes how grotesque it is that she’s living in paradise, surrounded by gossipy LA types who barely care about Europe, while her daughter is caught in the middle of worst war ever fought. 

The tension Landau creates is almost unbearable, and I found myself tapping the side of my Kindle as fast as I could. For me, the only frustration was the inclusion of Sasha’s point-of-view. He’s a great character, and in any other book I would have enjoyed learning more about him. But his chapters got in the way of learning more about Vera and Lucie and took up time that I wanted reserved to the mother and daughter trying to find their way back to each other. 

While this is one specific historical fiction story, the experiences of parents like Vera are not fictional. As I read Those Who Are Saved, I could not help but think of the parents who brought their children to the United States looking for asylum, only to have their children cruelly ripped away from them by government officials and then lost to the system. And these parents are also judged—for bringing their children to the U.S., for living in violent countries, for the steps they took to get here. 

Those Who Are Saved is an excellent reminder of the vagaries of fate. An accident of birthplace, a chance meeting, turning left instead of right. The wrong decision and a mother could lose her child forever. While we weep for Vera, we cannot forget the mothers who are living this real-life nightmare right now. 

Thanks to Putnam for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Alexis Landau:

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