The Butterfly and the Violin
Do you believe that love can survive even the direst of circumstances? In this engaging tale of hope amidst horror the author looks at what happens to love when the worst we can imagine separates us from the one we love.
As a young girl, Sera James saw a painting which has haunted her ever since. It is the portrait of a young violinist with piercing blue eyes, shaved head and a number tattoo across her arm. It is clear the young woman was one of the many prisoners in the Nazi work camps. Who she was and what has happened to the portrait since Sera saw it in Paris many years ago, though, is a complete enigma. Even as Sera built a life, opening her own gallery that would include Holocaust art and falling in love, the painting was always twirling through her thoughts. When she was jilted at the altar, the desire to find the painting became a lifeline. Now, two years later, Sera is as close as she has ever been to uncovering its secrets. A millionaire in Sausalito has a copy of the original work. Without hesitation, Sera boards a plane from New York to California. There she will meet the mysterious Mr. Hanover and learns what ties him to her special lady.
William Hanover is happy to meet with Sera about the portrait. It is vital that his family finds the original, for his grandfather’s will leaves millions to its owner. Millions his family had assumed were coming to them. Millions they need in order to keep their company running and maintain their life style. As eldest, William feels especially responsible for the family fortunes. He is determined to find the portrait and take back what rightfully belongs to him from the person who owns it.
In 1942 sweet, shy Adele Von Bron is Austria’s Sweetheart; a young violinist who is a virtuoso, able to weave magic with her music on stage. Off stage her life would seem to be charmed as well. She is the daughter of a high ranking Nazi officer and a socialite mother who want nothing more than for her to continue to shine on stage and to make an equally brilliant match off stage. Their opulent life style and important connections would seem to assure that Adele will have a glorious future in the currently victorious German empire. But Adele is horrified with what she has learned about the Nazis, most especially in regards to their treatment of the Jews. She despairs of her parents overbearing natures and despises their values. Most importantly of all, she is already in love with a most inappropriate man – Vladmir Nicolai, a fellow orchestral performer of ignoble birth. In him she sees the morality her parents so lack. When she learns that he is helping Jewish families escape Austria she is overjoyed – she has Jewish friends hiding in a cellar and begs him to help her get them out of the city. When Adele and Vladmir are caught aiding her friends they are sent to the work camps to pay for their crimes. Adele’s family totally disowns her, throwing her to mercy of the state without anything but the clothes on her back and her practice violin. They keep the beautiful, valuable instrument she played at concerts but the old, familiar friend she used for daily drills comes with her. Once she arrives at camp, the woman are sorted into groups, some going to do hard labor and those who are deemed unfit to work sent to the gas chambers. However, once the guards see the violin, Adele is delivered from either fate by her music. Because of her talent she is able to join the women’s orchestra within the camp. The melodies she once rejoiced in save her life but force her to bear witness to the full atrocities of all that happens within the barbed wire walls of her prison.
Our story alternates between Adele, ripped from her privileged life to experience the terror of the concentration camp and Sera, who feels haunted by the painting which has an important tie to her past. Sera, who has yet to heal from the fiasco of two years ago, finds herself falling for William as the two pursue their quest. But can she trust a man who looks at an important piece of art and sees only dollar signs? For Adele, the burning question of whether her love lives is one that she asks every moment of every day. Will survival be worth it if she must go on without him? Is survival even possible in these hellish circumstances?
The surface of this story is amazingly well done. I loved the peek at life behind Nazi lines and the glimpse of what it was like for those who disagreed with the government and found themselves in danger even from their own families. I also appreciated the historical look at the concentration camp orchestras and what life was like for artists forced to work for their enemy. The irony of the Germans celebrating their sophisticated love of music while the very artists who were providing the entertainment were less than human to them was a powerful reminder of the delusional nature of the regime. The author did an excellent job at walking the line between overwhelming us with the horror of life in the camps yet still advising us of just how truly horrific it was.
And I appreciated the juxtaposing of the modern story with the historical one. It gave us a needed break from the nightmare existence of the camps and provided us with the needed joy of seeing life go on and flourish for those who had survived the atrocities of the time. While what happened to Adele is not revealed till towards the end, the fact that her portrait and the art and stories of other victims of the camp outlive those who had imprisoned them gives us a taste of victory through defeat. The fact that the victims could paint and play music is a strong testament to the enduring power of the creative soul within the human spirit.
All books have flaws though and in this one I feel a few of them are worth mentioning. While the storytelling is strong I felt the weaknesses came in the characterizations. I had no sense of history from any of the pivotal players. I knew Vladmir was a shopkeeper’s son with Jewish neighbors but this is a statement, not a character building anecdote. William and the heroines were a little better but not by much. The weak nature of the romances was a problem as well – I couldn’t understand why Adele and Vladmir loved each other or why William and Sera fell for each other. We were told often enough of their feelings but I couldn’t see where they came from. The same thing is true with the characters’ faith. God would be mentioned but he was an awkward part of the conversation, as though he didn’t really belong. I especially couldn’t understand where Adele’s faith came from – what experience, what encounter drove her to cling to God when he had seemed to abandon her? In her family, where did she even hear of him in a manner that would be consistent with the evangelical faith she professed?
The book works in spite of those problems, though. Its strength lies in the story it tells and the important look at little discussed history it gives us. That strength overcomes its weaknesses to make it worth reading.