At the beginning of World War II, two German medical students and their families develop a close friendship. One of those families is Jewish. Having grasped the danger they face if they remain in Germany, the Brenners book passage on a ship sailing for America. They spend their last night in the home of their friends, the Meinhoffs. That evening their son becomes ill and Martin Brenner insists that his wife and daughter leave without him, assuring them that he will sail as soon as the small boy is well enough to travel. He’s unable to keep that promise and, despite many attempts over the years, Claire Brenner is never able to determine what happened to the husband and son she left behind.
Skipping forward twenty-four years, Claire Brenner has died and her daughter, Margot, has just finished medical school. She arranges a trip to Germany and, before her departure she contacts her parent’s old friend, Dr. Willibald Meinhoff, hoping that he’ll be able to provide some information related to the fate of her father and brother. Although he appears far from enthusiastic about her arrival, she moves forward with her plans, even going so far as to check into a possible internship at the hospital where Meinhoff’s son Willie is also in training. There is a last minute cancellation in that internship program and she is accepted. Willie welcomes her warmly, but his father appears increasingly uneasy about her attempts to dig into the past.
As the story continues to move back and forth in time, a dark secret is uncovered, but, initially, only for the reader. Margot Brenner’s search continues. Rather than issue a spoiler alert, I will only say that the novel deals with the heartbreakingly difficult choices that individuals were forced to make during those horrific times and the complex ways in which those choices altered the lives of later generations.