Written by Anne-Marie O’Connor
You may have seen the move Woman in Gold with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds. If you haven’t, I highly recommend it. I watched it before my trip to Vienna, and I love it even more now that I’ve returned. I knew nothing about the story, and in fact didn’t even know it was based on a book until my grandmother handed it to me. I’m so glad she did because this book provided more detail and insight into the whole situation.
What It’s About
This book is written in three parts. Part one deals with the early 1900’s in Viennese society. In those days, Jewish families grew in wealth and influence, marrying into Catholic families and patronizing the arts. One such artist was Gustav Klimt, an electrifying artist who pushed boundaries in both art and social commentary through his art. In part two, we experience Vienna during the Nazis’ rise to power, occupation, and eventual defeat. And in the final part, we enter the modern era, when questions are raised about Austrian involvement in the horrors of World War II. Questions are raised about ownership of important pieces of art.
I have read a lot about the World War II era (as you know if you look at the list of books I’ve reviewed here). I can’t seem to get away from it. What makes this one stand out is its perspective. This is less about what happened during the war than it is about what the war destroyed and how we’re finally gaining some perspective on it. Let me provide a few examples. Pre-war, O’Connor paints a picture of Viennese culture and society that is just as gleaming and fragile as one of Klimt’s gold leaf paintings. Interwar Vienna feels fleeting, a period that we skip over in history class. But O’Connor presents painters and scientists and writers and the socialites who danced around them in a way that helps you mourn for what was lost. And yet, she pulls no punches about the restrictive futures available to all these dreaming young women even before their world came crashing down.
But I think the best thing about this book is the middle. O’Connor makes real the choices each person had to face. What do you do if a family of five can only secure one exit visa? How do you know when to leave and when to stay? When do you finally give up on everything you’ve built? What happens when it’s all over and you have to face your future? O’Connor doesn’t provide answers to any of those questions. Instead she shows us what real people had to do, and lets the survivors present the aftermath. Her impartiality provides a sickening punch to each story.
I participate in flash fiction contests (shameless plug for my other site: ftpdblog.wordpress.com) , and in a recent round, it seemed like most of us had issues with timelines. We jumped around too much or didn’t signal the change or didn’t jump around enough. It’s possible that I was focused on that when reading this book, but I felt like the progression of this book was jumpy. O’Connor likes to open a chapter or a section with a setting, then jump back in time to fill in the gaps, return to the setting or just after, and then jump back again. I often found myself flipping pages to figure out where the heck we were.
The people were also hard to follow. O’Connor would introduce a person, often someone secondary to the action, then drop them for pages and pages before dropping the name again. Footnotes, references to professions, or even a cast of characters would have helped this tremendously. But she also had a habit of calling a handful of people interchangeably by a last name or a first name. It was made worse by the popularity of names like Gustav. I often didn’t know if she was referring to Klimt or Mahler or any of a handful of other Gustavs without having to backtrack.
This book had serious issues with its construction. I had to spend a lot of time figuring out who was who and when certain events happened. It absolutely detracted from the book.
And yet, I can’t get this book out of my head. Obviously, the book deals with arrests and torture and murder. I’m not sure it’s possible to write about this period in history without that. But more than anything I’ve read, The Lady in Gold exposes the culpability of turning a blind eye. You feel the pervasiveness of evil, how it seeps in and corrupts so easily. It challenged my assumptions/hope that many people went along with what happened because they saw no other path.
This is not just a book about how people hurt each other; it’s a book about how people heal. Sixty-plus years later, we still can’t seem to answer that question. And it’s haunting.