Legacy of Silence
Belva Plain does not write romances. She writes what was called “women’s fiction” back before Oprah expanded the definition to include more literary works. Plain practices what I think of as the “sweeping family saga” school of women’s fiction. Thus, I did not judge this book as a romance, but on its own merits. These, I’m sad to say, are sadly lacking.
Legacy of Silence tells the story of Caroline Hartzinger, who escapes Germany in 1938 with her adopted sister Lore, her unborn baby, and a terrible secret about the child’s father. She makes a marriage of convenience with a good man, Joel Hirsch, and has a daughter, Eve. Much later, she has a second daughter, Jane. The story follows these three women through the years.
I really wanted to like this book. It was a nostalgia trip for me, as I spent many an hour on the beach reading my mother’s hand-me-downs of Belva Plain, Barbara Taylor Bradford, and Danielle Steel. But like romance, sweeping family sagas have certain conventions, and Plain’s book does not deliver on these.
The most important one is that no matter what their struggles and hardships, the main characters should be strong and independent women. They should be well-drawn, individual, with talents, hopes and dreams. I never got the feeling that I knew anything at all about Eve or Jane as women; most of Eve’s mature life is left out completely, as is Jane’s life between ages four and thirty-five. While there is more development of Caroline, she is not an appealing person. She first endangers her family by carrying on a love affair with the son of a Nazi; once in America and more or less rescued by a sympathetic man, she collapses into a 2-year-long mope. She’s nasty to Lore, catty about the kindly Americans who take them in, and indifferent to Joel. She eventually has a change of heart toward him, but with no apparent reason.
Another convention of the family saga is that it is set against the panorama of the 20th century, showing how great historic events intertwine with the characters’ lives. This works fairly well in the first section, set in Nazi Germany. You do get a real sense of the anxiety and desperation surrounding Jews who needed to get out, but had nowhere to go. However, once in America, the only reason you know that time passes is because characters say things like, “My goodness, can you believe it’s ten years already since we arrived?”
The strong women of family sagas usually start a business from nothing and build it to an empire, which becomes a legacy to the later generations. Not here. Caroline starts a chain of European cafes which become improbably successful (in rural upstate New York) with no discernable effort on her part. These promptly vanish with Joel’s death and are never heard from again. Eve and Jane do not fight to get them or even express regret that they are gone.
The biggest foul of all is the handling of the “shocking revelation” about the family secrets in the last part of the book. First, the narrative at this point has shifted to Jane, who is a complete non-entity. We know nothing about her life since age four except that she is a psychologist who is engaged to a nice lawyer. While in Switzerland, on the basis of a passing remark in the now-dead Lore’s diary, she suddenly decides to visit the family who sheltered Caroline and Lore back in 1938.
There she learns the truth about Eve’s father, a truth which had been hidden in lies told by Lore. Rather than being the climactic pinnacle of the story, this should-have-been pivotal scene is both utterly devoid of emotion and incredibly inconsistent with what the reader learned earlier in the book.
Throughout the book, Plain has made poor story-telling choices. Things happen at random; these are not strong women in control of their destinies, but well-dressed pinballs careening off in another direction because the plot demands it. Again and again, what should be moments of emotion and revelation either fall flat, with characters murmuring psychobabble platitudes, or happen entirely off screen. Either this is a lazy, by-the-numbers effort by a coasting author, or there are some badly made cuts in the manuscript to shorten the length of the final book.
I think the family saga deserves a comeback. At their best, such stories feature strong and inspiring female characters, and they include 20th century history, an era mostly left out of historical romance. Unfortunately, Plain’s latest is a terrible example of the genre.