Those Who Are Saved

  • Review
By – February 19, 2021

Those Who Are Saved is Alex­is Lan­dau’s ambi­tious fol­low-up to her equal­ly ambi­tious debut nov­el, The Empire of the Sens­es, a final­ist for a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award in 2015. Few first nov­el­ists attempt his­tor­i­cal fic­tion with the sweep of Lan­dau’s. But she has now writ­ten two such books.

In the ear­li­er nov­el, Lan­dau depict­ed the lives of a mixed Jew­ish-Chris­t­ian Ger­man fam­i­ly dur­ing World War I and the late 1920s. Its themes encom­passed assim­i­la­tion, the rise of Nazism and Zion­ism, and sex­u­al awak­en­ing, among oth­ers. In Landau’s new nov­el, the ini­tial scene is France in the months fol­low­ing the Ger­man inva­sion of 1940. Vera and Max, Russ­ian Jew­ish émi­grés who have lived in Paris since the 1920s, con­tem­plate the news that for­eign-born Jews are to be interned. Vera is a suc­cess­ful nov­el­ist and Max is an accom­plished com­pos­er; they con­sid­er them­selves French cit­i­zens. They turn them­selves in for intern­ment nonethe­less, leav­ing their four-year-old daugh­ter, Lucie, in the care of the daugh­ter’s nan­ny. They even­tu­al­ly escape France and make it to Los Ange­les, forced by cir­cum­stances to leave with­out the child. The con­se­quences of that deci­sion dri­ve the plot.

Inter­twined with Vera and Max’s quest to find their daugh­ter is the sto­ry of anoth­er seek­er, Sasha — an aspir­ing Hol­ly­wood writer-direc­tor on the verge of his first break­through when World War II reach­es the Unit­ed States. Like Vera and Max, Sasha and his moth­er emi­grat­ed from Rus­sia, but their back­sto­ry dif­fers from the French cou­ples’: orig­i­nal­ly from a shtetl, they end­ed up on New York’s Low­er East Side in the 1920s. While Vera longs for reunion with her child, Sasha is in quest of the iden­ti­ty of his miss­ing father. Sasha and Vera meet in pass­ing in Los Ange­les on the day the Japan­ese attack Pearl Har­bor as Sasha pre­pares to go to war. They meet again three years lat­er and they are drawn to each oth­er in their indi­vid­ual quests. The last third of the nov­el becomes a sus­pense­ful search for Vera’s miss­ing daugh­ter when Vera returns to France after the war ends in Europe.

As Lan­dau states in her author’s note, Vera is mod­eled to an extent on Irène Némirovsky, the Russ­ian-born French nov­el­ist who was interned in France and even­tu­al­ly deport­ed to Auschwitz along with over 70,000 oth­er for­eign-born Jew­ish res­i­dents in France and many French cit­i­zens of long stand­ing. Nemirovsky’s posthu­mous­ly pub­lished Suite Française, writ­ten con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous­ly with the Ger­man inva­sion, is a har­row­ing pic­ture of those ear­ly months of the war. Lan­dau doesn’t match Némirovsky in depict­ing the chaos in the ear­ly chap­ters, but she comes into her own in the lat­er scenes of Vera’s search for Lucie amid the throngs of dis­placed per­sons seek­ing their loved ones in Paris.

It is clear that Lan­dau has done a lot of research, but there are some inac­cu­ra­cies and chrono­log­i­cal lib­er­ties. A num­ber of his­tor­i­cal bold-face names come and go in the plot, some of whom seem gra­tu­itous­ly intro­duced. Anoth­er short­com­ing of Those Who Are Saved is that sev­er­al plot points — such as Vera and Max’s escape from intern­ment — seem to be passed over with some hand-waving.

These draw­backs notwith­stand­ing, Those Who Are Saved is a major nov­el, rich­ly imag­ined. There are con­nec­tions between this book and The Empire of the Sens­es, and it is like­ly that Lan­dau might pro­duce a third nov­el to close the cir­cle of char­ac­ters. If she does so, she will have writ­ten a com­pelling tril­o­gy that encom­pass­es a sig­nif­i­cant slice of Jew­ish life in the shad­ow of the Holo­caust both before and after. Even if she goes in a whol­ly new direc­tion, she will have writ­ten two books that most nov­el­ists couldn’t attempt until lat­er in their careers.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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