Ayelet Waldman’s historical novel is a challenging and beautiful read in a prologue and three parts. It begins in the present with Natalie Stein, a recently divorced young woman visiting her dying grandfather, Jack Wiseman. She is distressed and hopeless; worried about her, the grandfather gives Natalie a velvet pouch containing a gold filigreed pendant with an enameled painting of a peacock, amethyst and peridot gemstones alternating at the tip of each of its feathers. Grandfather enlists Natalie to help him find the owner of a valuable old locket he has secretly held onto for so many decades.
The novel moves then to 1945 Salzburg, post-World War II, when American officer Jack Wiseman is assigned to protect the contents of the Hungarian Gold Train. Its cars are filled with incredible riches: gold watches and jewelry, complete sets of china, furs, artwork, and silver candlesticks, all taken away from the Hungarian Jews. This seemingly simple job immediately becomes very complicated and political. Wiseman falls in love with Ilona, a beautiful Hungarian DP (displaced person) who has lost everything in the war.
Next the author takes the reader to 2013 Budapest, where Natalie meets Amitai Shasho, an art dealer who specializes in artifacts lost during the Holocaust. Together they embark on a mission to find a painting depicting the peacock pendant, and hopefully leading to the heirs of its owner.
The final section takes us back to 1913 Budapest, to the friendship between Nina S., the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, and Gizella Weisz, a dwarf who is secretary to Mrs. Rozsa Schwimmer, a leader in the revolution for women’s suffrage. The epilogue takes place at an auction in 1948 New York, when Jack returns from his overseas service.
This story, though a bit complicated to follow, was quite worthwhile. We learn in detail about the incredible wealth and stature of the Jewish citizens of Hungary before the war. We learn about café culture and the struggle for women’s rights. The novel covers the pressing issue of postwar Jewish DP’s and the involvement of American army soldiers at that time. The author discusses artwork theft and recovery, love, guilt, and responsibility.
This beautifully written story provides much to think about and discuss.