Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman

Our member Jane Hiatt writes:

If you are curious about what life was like in the displaced persons camps immediately following World War II, then you will enjoy reading Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman. If you have heard about the infamous Hungarian Gold Train but can’t quite imagine what it looked like and what it carried, then Love and Treasure is for you. If you would like a more intimate understanding of what it might have been like to have been a talented, ambitious young woman in Budapest in the early 1900’s and how the European women’s suffrage movement might have affected your dreams and your future, then you will benefit from reading Love and Treasure. But if you are looking for a contemporary love story that is plausible between two characters you care about, then this is not the book.

Yes, Waldman covers all of that territory in her new novel, Love and Other Treasure, published in the spring of this year. She accomplishes this by tracing the path of a piece of jewelry through various hands until it ends up in the care of Natalie Stein, who has been given the elaborate, bejeweled, enameled peacock pendant by her grandfather, Jack Wiseman, when he was on his deathbed. His one request of his granddaughter, who is at a searching and defining period in her life, is to return the pendant to a descendent of the necklace’s rightful owner. Natalie’s search takes her to contemporary Hungary, then to Israel in a seeming dead-end, and finally the ultimate return of the necklace.

Along the way, Waldman’s story detours to post-war Vienna and Wiseman’s time in the military as the lieutenant responsible for guarding the Hungarian Gold Train. His time in this war-ravaged city and his experiences with residents of a displaced persons camp are among the best parts of the book—detailed, compelling, fascinating, heart-breaking. An earlier portion in the “life” of the necklace takes place during the early 1900’s in the Jewish upper class of Budapest. Talented and beautiful, but rebellious, young Nina S. has great dreams and ambitions. Influenced by the women’s suffrage movement, she rebels against the proscriptions of the life her powerful father has designed for her. In a change of narrative point of view, this portion of the book is told by Nina S.’s psychoanalyst as he recounts his treatment of the young woman for “hysteria.”

Yes, Love and Treasure covers a lot of territory and uses a narrative structure that is not linear, instead moving back and forth in time as it traces the history of the peacock necklace. The historical sections were the more interesting ones to me, and I learned about two periods in history with which I was not very familiar. The Jack Wiseman character is the most well-developed, but his granddaughter remains shallow and inconsistent, and her motivations are not clear. The historical love story in the postwar period was credible and moving; the more contemporary love story was not. So, do I recommend this book? I am glad I read it. I enjoyed it, and I learned from it, but it felt overly complex. I am not sure that the narrative structure was necessary. And by choosing to cover so much historical territory, while trying at the same time to keep the book at a reasonable length, Waldman had to sacrifice depth—depth of character, depth of description, depth of writing. You will have to decide for yourself whether that sacrifice was worth it.