The Puzzle King

Algonquin Books  2009


 It is easy to hear the ring of truth in novels about the Jewish immigrant experience, and it is also easy to identify with those who people such novels, but there is something unique about The Puzzle King, an almost palpable resonance that reverberates throughout the text, for here the author exudes love and admiration, and it is real. This character-driven novel need not rely on plot: readers know the astonishing success stories of Jews who came to America; they know the persecution from which the characters escaped; and they know the attitudes of loyal German Jews who, in the clear light of danger, believed that “Germans do not desert their country just because it happens to be going through hard times.”

The Puzzle King tells the story of Simon Phelps, someone who exemplifies the notion that “you can take the man out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the man.” Carter deftly introduces the family with whom readers will spend their time. There is Flora Grossman (ultimately Simon’s wife), who adores her husband, slips comfortably into an American life, but longs for children to complete her. There is Seema, Flora’s sister, who comes to America with her and best defines the immigrant who eschews religion and relies upon a misguided need to acculturate; and there is Margot, another sister, who refuses to leave Germany despite the problems there. Throughout the humorous and often poignant descriptions, there is a constant tone of longing and feeling somehow “out of place” that is ever-present like a lingering echo.

The men in this novel are resilient and strong, but no one is more intriguing than Simon. He is the puzzle king, a man who uses his creative abilities to carve out a place for himself in America; a man entirely devoted to his wife; and a man who even at the height of his success, bemoans the fact that he can “earn a fortune making puzzles,” but can’t “solve the real one in [his] own life.” The puzzle that haunts him: what has happened to the family he left in Lithuania? To know and understand Simon as Carter portrays him is to know that he finds a way.

Discussion Questions

1. How did Simon Phelps retain his Jewish identity as a young boy coming to America on his own?

2. Had Flora and Simon had children of their own, would they have been as passionate and determined about their mission?

3. Was there anything about the characters of Flora and Simon in the beginning of the book that made you think they would act as they did at the end of the book?

4. Did you feel positively or negatively about Karl Emmerling? What would you do in his situation?

5. Why did Frederick and Margot continue to stay on in Germany even when everyone was urging them to go?

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