That Summer in Berlin
Like many others, I find the time period around and during World War II to be absolutely fascinating. So when I discovered that Lecia Cornwall’s That Summer In Berlin was set in the summer of 1936 during the Berlin Olympic Games, I snatched it up to review.
Viviane Alden, a heroine worthy of Jo March, is most definitely a reluctant English debutante. She’s expected to make a good marriage and become a proper lady when what she really wants to do is become a professional photographer. After breaking off a promising engagement (to her mother’s great dismay), Viviane is presented with the opportunity to accompany her adopted sister, Julia, to Berlin to attend the 1936 summer Olympics. At first, she wants nothing to do with the trip. Her military officer father suffered greatly following a horrific mustard gas attack in World War I, something Viviane holds the Germans responsible for. But then she’s approached with a photography mission she can’t refuse.
Tom Graham is a reporter who just wants to keep his head down and do his job. Born a bastard, his father’s noble rank allowed him entry into high society, but his mother’s low birth has kept him always on its edges. He and Viviane meet when Tom serves as the best man at her sister’s wedding, and the sparks between them alternate between attraction and disdain. His respect for her grows, however, when he sees her taking photos at a dangerous riot, risking her life for the images that flesh out the words of his story.
Tom is asked by his editor and his estranged father to go to Berlin and pose as a Nazi sympathizer in order to gather information about Hitler’s Germany. Feeling it’s his duty, he reluctantly agrees, but hates that those back home will believe he supports the fascist regime based on the glowing, propaganda-filled stories he will be required to write. He’s more concerned when Viviane is tasked with getting photos of Hitler’s war build-up and of the abominable treatment of the Jews. As a young English tourist on holiday in Berlin, no one would suspect her of anything clandestine. Tom hates the idea of Viviane in danger but can’t deny that she’s good at her job. And it is crucial that they bring the truth back home to an English population thinking that Hitler can’t be that dangerous and must be appeased and tolerated.
Viviane and Julia are soon ensconced with Julia’s godfather Count Georg von Schroeder and his family. Eldest son Otto and youngest son Klaus are fully on the Nazi train, the former as a lieutenant in the SS and the younger as a proud member of Hitler’s Youth. Middle son Felix, a scientist, seems ambivalent about Germany’s turn towards authoritarianism and even has a Jewish mentor that he reveres. The family proudly shows off the beauty of Germany and extolls the superiority of the Aryan race, praising Hitler and excited about the Utopian future they believe he will bring. Viviane and Tom, however, can see the truth bubbling beneath the polished surface that has been created to impress all of the international guests in Berlin for the Olympics.
I enjoyed this book and kept turning the pages, however as I sit down to write this review, I’m struggling to put into words why I liked it. Viviane is a great heroine, strong, brave and resourceful. For some reason, Cornwall has given her a limp sustained during a childhood accident, but this limp had no bearing on the story or even on Viviane’s experiences or personality. I really have no idea why it’s even a thing.
Tom is a solid hero, and the chemistry between the two is good. However, the romance in the story is very much a background element, and the couple has somewhat limited interaction. If you want a prominent romance, this is not the book for you.
The setting and time period are very intriguing. How many times have we asked how the German people could allow Hitler’s hate-filled regime rise to power and commit so many atrocities? This book gives a small window into the halcyon time before the war began and some understanding as to how the populace might fall under the thrall of a demagogue and the promise of a glorious future. Certainly, reading this story hinted at our current times in a way that I found very disturbing, knowing where it all ultimately led.
That said, the Olympics are very much window dressing, serving as the catalyst for why Viviane and Tom would be in Berlin, but are never dwelt on or explored in any depth other than how the Germans were instructed to hide anything that could be perceived as negative by outsiders. Historical figures are intertwined loosely into the story, mostly as peers of the von Schroeders, but the action is kept to the fictional characters.
This is a total sidebar and has no effect on my review, but I actually listened to That Summer In Berlin as an audio book. Tom is supposed to be from Glasgow, and his Scottish accent is mentioned more than once. However, the narrator of the audiobook adopted an Irish accent when reading his dialogue, and that very much distracted me.
The reason that this book gets a B rather than an A, however, is that with such a promising premise, we actually get very little of Tom or Viviane doing the dangerous work they are tasked with doing. We are told that Viviane has taken photos with important details “in the background” and that Tom has managed to gain entry into Nazi society and is passing secrets up the chain, but we never see this happening. Only once do we get a fully fleshed-out mission that involves major risk. The sense of danger is always present mostly because I have the benefit of hindsight and know how awful the Nazis were and what would happen if Tom or Viviane should be caught. But only once or twice did I feel that Tom or Viviane was in danger of being discovered.
I recommend That Summer in Berlin to those who love historical fiction, especially that set around WWII, as something a bit different given that it takes place prior to the war. The characters and time period are intriguing even if the story is a bit thin.