The For­tu­nate Ones

  • Review
By – February 20, 2017

The mys­tery sur­round­ing the dis­ap­pear­ance of Chaim Soutine’s paint­ing The Bell­hop is the thread that ties two women’s lives togeth­er in this well-imag­ined novel.

When she is eleven years old, Rose and her broth­er Ger­hard are sent from Vien­na to Eng­land on the Kinder­trans­port after the Nazis take over Aus­tria in 1938. Their beloved par­ents per­ish dur­ing the war, and scarred by this expe­ri­ence, Rose is plagued by thoughts of what could have hap­pened to her mother’s favorite paint­ing—The Bell­hop, which she pur­chased years ago from a Parisian gallery. Rose nev­er stops search­ing for traces of its whereabouts.

Fast-for­ward to present-day Los Ange­les, where Lizzie Gold­stein is mourn­ing the loss of her own father. After the war, The Bell­hop made its way to a gallery in New York and was bought by her father — but then stolen dur­ing a par­ty that Lizzie had arranged. This event has con­tin­ued to haunt Lizzie, now a suc­cess­ful attor­ney in New York who has come to Los Ange­les to help her sis­ter set­tle their father’s estate.

Uman­sky details the two women’s per­son­al sto­ries as she skips between 1936 and 2008. Rose and Lizzie, more than a gen­er­a­tion apart, share a sem­i­nal psy­cho­log­i­cal trau­ma of loss of child­hood secu­ri­ty though the loss of a par­ent. When they do meet because of their shared pas­sion — the search for the fate of the paint­ing — the imme­di­ate empa­thy they feel for each oth­er despite their vast­ly dif­fer­ent life expe­ri­ences is cred­i­ble, and a trib­ute to the author’s under­stand­ing of human nature. Nei­ther woman has strong Jew­ish ties, yet Uman­sky includes an attempt by Lizzie to find solace when she goes to tem­ple to say kad­dish for her father.

Art resti­tu­tion after World War II is the sub­ject of many books, both fic­tion and non­fic­tion. Lizzie even refers to the book about the legal bat­tle for the Gus­tave Klimt paint­ing Woman In Gold, which was made into a wide­ly seen film. Estab­lish­ment of prove­nance is often time-con­sum­ing and cost­ly, and, ear­ly on in the sto­ry, Rose’s broth­er Ger­hard tells her to for­get it and just go for­ward. (As the title implies, they are, after all, the For­tu­nate Ones.”)

How the mys­tery gets solved and whether there is a com­plete res­o­lu­tion is almost less impor­tant than the hunt itself. Uman­sky, in this debut nov­el, has demon­strat­ed true sto­ry-telling talent.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions