The German Bride

Ballantine Books  2008

 

What is a nineteen-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman from Europe doing out in the Southwest of America in 1865? Joanna Hershon answers this question in her new novel, The German Bride.

Eva Frank has hastily married a man she does not love in order to get away from a non-Jewish artist named Heinrich who had been commissioned by her father to paint her portrait. At the age of fifteen, she has had a passionate affair with him, but soon realizes that conversion is not an option for either one of them and, given her family’s values, she must end it. She is surprisingly strong in taking control of her life at such a young age, but she feels she must not be tempted and so marries Abraham Schein, who takes her away to America. Armed with her desire not to be hurt again, she approaches this marriage intellectually, thinking she can grow to love her husband.

However, Abraham Schein turns out to be a gambler, a heavy drinker, and a womanizer. And like most gamblers, he makes promises he can’t fulfill—not only to his debtors but to his wife. One of his promises, which is extremely meaningful to Eva, is to build her a European style home to replace the adobe hut they are living in after their arrival in Santa Fe. Eva, who has come there with childish hopes and ideals, loses them one at a time. If adversity is the test of character, Eva passes with flying colors, along with heartbreak. It is fascinating to see how she develops from a superficial young woman, who is jealous of her neighbor, Bea, for being good looking, graceful, and rich into a self-assured person, who learns how to survive. Tracing her path out of several desperate situations makes this book a page-turner.

Discussion Questions

Courtesy of Random House
 

1. Eva blames herself throughout the novel for the death of her sister Henriette and Henriette’s newborn son. Do you think that Eva is, in fact, to blame? Do you think in a similar situation today, a woman would suffer a comparable amount of guilt and shame?

2. Eva has relationships with three different men in this novel—Heinrich, Abraham, and Levi. What issues do you think Hershon was trying to explore through each one? Do you think Eva was in love with any, or all, of these men?

3. Abraham is a maddening husband, brother, business partner, and friend. Even so, there is something compelling about him. Did you find yourself rooting for him despite his terrible behavior, or did you feel that he got only what he deserved?

4. Why do you think Hershon chose “The self forms on the edge of desire,” a quote from an Anne Carson poem, as her epigraph?

5. What role does Judaism play in The German Bride? What about the role of Jewish identity? Is there a difference between the two?

6. There is a drastic difference in environment between Berlin and Santa Fe, and the landscape of the American southwest is evoked both harshly and sublimely. What role do you think “place” plays in the development of The German Bride?

7. Do you identify more with Eva’s sister-in-law, Beatrice Speigelman or with Eva herself? Why?

8. How big a part does God and faith play in this novel?

9. Eva and Levi form their friendship while in a sickroom. How does his weakness play a part in their relations? Is his weakness eroticized? How?

10. Abraham and Meyer have a strained and ultimately tragic relationship. Do you think Meyer should have cut him off long before he did? Which of the two brothers is more “American”?

11. This is a historical novel, in that it takes place in the past. But do you think this story would hold up in a contemporary setting? Is there a difference between a historical novel and a literary novel that happens to take place in the past?

12. How would you characterize Hershon’s prose style? Are there any sentences that stayed with you after you’d finished reading? Pick a striking scene and read it aloud. Is there music in the language? Variation? Is anything excessive?

13. The ending of The German Bride leaves so much in question. Were you satisfied by Hershon’s decision to end mid-journey? What role does Pauline, her fellow stagecoach passenger, play in this story? Do you think she is important to the novel? How? Why do you think Hershon ended the book with the line: “The other is me”?



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