The Girl They Left Behind
In this story based on the real-life experiences of Roxanne Veletzo’s grandmother, a young girl is left by her Jewish mother on the stoop of a house in Bucharest, believing that this will be the only way to save the child from the Nazi invasion. She’s taken in by a kindly concierge, who brings her to St. Paul’s Orphanage.
Natalia is taken in by Anton and Despina Goza, a rich family who sells paper goods and is connected to the orphanage by their cousin Maria. Despina and Anton take one look at little Natalia and immediately sense she’s what’s been missing from their family, and envelop her in the lap of luxury, spoiling her even as her schoolmates taunt her over her status as an orphan. As the Russians pour over the Romanian border, the shadows of war grip the Goza family, and ultimately leave them destitute.
As the years go by, the war passes – and Bucharest becomes a communist holding, and Natalia’s father is arrested for resisting the new regime and labeled a bourgeois capitalist. Meanwhile Natalia falls passionately in love with Victor, a soldier in the Red Army who helps her family. Natalia finds a letter sent from her biological mother to her parents, wishing to see her after years of separation, leaving Natalia curious about her roots. But when Victor leaves for another assignment, the favors stop, and the Gozas are forced into communal housing, Anton is forbidden to work, and their communist lifestyle requires the sacrifice of Natalia’s beloved piano. Then Natalia re-encounters Victor, and the world changes. With hope dimming, will Natalia ever see her natural mother again? And how will her relationship with Victor work out?
Shannon Dyer and Lisa Fernandes read The Girl They Left Behind, and got together to share their thoughts on the novel.
Lisa: I’m right down the middle of the line with this one; the vivid depictions of the book’s war sections were intriguing, but a lot of loose plot threads ended up taunting me. How did you feel about it?
Shannon: I was really excited to pick this one up, and as often happens, I ended up building it up too much in my own mind. I sometimes think it’s impossible for most books to live up to my expectations. I completely agree with you about the plot points that were left hanging, and I must also add that some of the characters were rather flat.
Lisa: Did you like Natalia? She came off as a little bland to me – beyond her love of the piano and passion for music she was rather bland. Also she seems to accept her new family and new religion with uncomplicated ease, which is both a sign of how deep her trauma runs, and says something very interesting about how one must assimilate to survive, but also felt simplistic. On the other hand, I did like the way her embracing modern culture was a sign that she would survive the harder times, as opposed to her father’s clinging to the old. By the end of the book she had almost come to life for me.
Shannon: Natalia was one of the characters I did actually like, and I loved her passion for the piano. In some ways, it felt as though she was living out her past traumas through her music, which added a lot of depth to her character; and I really appreciated the way the author chose to portray her as obviously scarred but determined to survive. She did seem to take things in her stride when she was a child, but I think that’s an accurate depiction of how some children deal with deep trauma.
Lisa: I agree that the way music is used in the book in general is really quite interesting.
But I have to say that the book suffers a bit from its shifting point of view; in fact, choppy editing is perhaps its weakest point. I would have rather we’d stayd with Natalia for more of the book instead of head-hopping from Maria to Despina to Natalia to Anton. I understand, for instance, why Stefan and Maria’s story exists in the book, but it peters out in a frustrating manner without conclusion. How did you feel about that?
Shannon: I usually love stories that are told from multiple perspectives, but it didn’t sit so well with me here. Natalia is supposed to be our heroine, but we don’t spend nearly enough time with her. I would have liked to have seen things more exclusively through her lens instead of jumping around so much. I do understand why the author chose to include the stories of other characters, but I don’t think it was done in a way that moved the story forward.
Lisa: I felt a lot of sympathy for Despina and Maria, especially Despina’s longing for her husband and her desperation during the war as she tries to keep Natalia alive. Did you like either of them?
Shannon: I definitely liked Despina more than Maria. Her story was quite compelling, and I thought the author captured her emotions in a believable way. Maria came off as overly interfering and judgmental, and I don’t think we were given enough insight into her character. I like to understand why the people I read about think and act in certain ways, but I never felt like I really knew Maria in anything but a superficial way.
Lisa: How about Anton? Could you relate to his feeling of getting lost behind the times?
Shannon: Anton was kind of a tricky character for me. On one hand, I found his feelings of alienation quite understandable, but having said that, I did find myself feeling frustrated by his obvious inertia. He seemed aware of the problems in his life, and in some cases, I believe he had some understanding of how certain things could be changed, but he seemed unwilling or perhaps unable to move forward. I sometimes felt he enjoyed feeling adrift in the changing times, and I found those feelings a little hard to relate to.
Lisa: One thing I couldn’t buy was Natalia’s relationship with Victor. She’s experienced plenty of negativity with the Red Army and Victor let the family down in a crucial time of need, yet she was easily swept up in her forbidden romance with him to the point where it meant more to her than nearly anything else in her life. Maybe desperate times call for desperate loves, but I don’t really feel like it worked. The fact that their relationship begins in infidelity didn’t help either. What did you think about their romance?
Shannon: I didn’t like it at all. I really wanted Natalia to find a kind, dependable man to help her through the war, but Victor was certainly not that person. I constantly questioned how Natalia could have fallen for him, and even though the author tries to show us why, I couldn’t buy into it. Do you have any thoughts about who might have better suited to Natalia?
Lisa: Gosh, I wish I did but I can’t think of another male character in the story of her age who might have worked as a proper alternative. I was actually waiting for her to meet someone when the story moved to New York (we know she became a mother somehow, as the author is her granddaughter!). Speaking of Victor, did you like him at all? Or find him to be too wishy-washy? Was his ultimate nobility at the end of things worth the heartache he put Natalia through?
Shannon: I’m not a Victor fan. I didn’t find him the least bit sympathetic. He did a great job saying all the right things, but when the chips were down, he wasn’t there for Natalia and her family in the ways he should have been. The whole thing at the end came off as way too little too late for me.
Lisa: And even then, that was an event prompted by her parents – a nice echo of the themes from earlier in the book. One thing the book does very well is describe the horror of the Holocaust and the waste wrecked upon Bucharest by World War II, a subject not often tackled. How did you feel about how the book portrayed the war, and Bucharest’s communist occupation afterwards?
Shannon: This is where I think the book really shines. It’s clear the author knows a lot about the subject, and she does a fantastic job bringing this dark period of history to life for the reader. She didn’t shy away from any of the hard, brutal facts of the war and the subsequent occupation, and I really appreciated that. At the same time, I didn’t get the impression she was cashing in on any of the hardships the characters faced in an attempt to shock the reader.
Lisa: This is a great point – it’s quite nicely non-exploitative. What’s your overall score? I’m going with a C+; excellent history, a heart-tugging story in parts, but the awful romantic subplot did nothing for me, and Natalia’s story, while engaging, didn’t invest me as much as I wish it had the book suffers overall from a lack of clear focus on her.
Shannon: It gets a C from me. Natalia’s character was engaging, but the nature of the romance coupled with the constant shifting of perspectives brought the grade down quite a bit.