Alice Prewitt, the mature and introspective high school student who is the heroine of Jordyn Taylor’s new novel, is confronting a somewhat unusual situation as her story begins. Her beloved grandmother has just died and in her will she has left Alice an apartment in Paris. Not every New Jersey teenager inherits a luxurious property in a European capital. Alice’s other concerns will be more familiar to readers. She is an only child, who over the years has struggled to cope with her parents’ unwillingness to discuss difficult issues, including her mother’s depression. As Alice observes with muted frustration, “My family’s first language is small talk.” Alice will have to learn a new language, both literally, on her trip to France with her parents, and figuratively, as she works to find a more honest means of communicating with them. At the same time that this plot unfolds in the present, a parallel narrative develops in flashbacks to World War II when the city was occupied by the Germans. Taylor skillfully interweaves the two stories, with each one reflecting the other, as characters past and present struggle with the central conflicts in their lives.
When Alice enters her grandmother’s apartment, she finds diaries and photos that imply contradicting facts about the family that lived there. A detailed journal kept by Alice’s great-aunt Adalyn raises complicated issues of moral responsibility. At the same time, Alice’s commitment to research and interpret this document creates a gripping mystery and a rich exploration of history. While she devotes time and energy to unearthing the truth of the past, her parents’ lives remain static, as they show themselves unable to cope with the implications of the unexpected legacy. At the same time, Alice meets a young man whose support and affection bring her joy, but also challenge her family dynamics in a sometimes painful way.
The main characters in the novel are not Jewish, but Adalyn’s friendship with French Jews raises her awareness about the devastating consequences of her country’s occupation by Germany. Adalyn’s description of the infamous roundup in the Vélodrome d’Hiver, where Jews were imprisoned before their ultimate deportation to Auschwitz, conveys the shock experienced by French Christians who had initially expected that their lives would continue in a compromised but still recognizable way: “Sometimes when I learn of the cruelty that is happening, I think it must be happening in another world.” The author is unstinting in her portrayal of those French citizens who succeeded in turning a blind eye to the suffering of their neighbors, preferring transparent self-justifications for appeasement and collaboration. The heroism of those who chose to join the Resistance is paradoxically more impressive and yet more believable in the context of this ugly alternative. Taylor, in comparing but not equating Adalyn’s life-threatening circumstances to Alice’s family turmoil, has created a work of both psychological and historical depth for young adults.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.