The Lost Son is a very straightforward women’s fiction novel centering around – you guessed it – a woman’s quest to find her missing child.
Julia Kruse’s mother died in childbirth. Her father, a famous chef at a luxury hotel, fears his demanding job will keep him from spending time with his two young daughters, so he takes a position at the Kruse estate, managing their kitchen. The Kruse family insists on treating them as kin, and Julia and her sister Lena join the Kruse’s own children in being tutored.
For young Julia, this is a dream come true. An early reader and avid student, she quickly outshines all the other kids in the small, private classroom, a fact that causes Lena to resent her. Life would be miserable for Julia if it wasn’t for her father and Robert, the cherished son of the Kruse’s and Julia’s champion.
The two families enjoy many happy years together until Julia’s father dies unexpectedly during her final year of schooling. Robert encourages his family to let Julia stay at their house until she turns eighteen and then the two of them marry. His parents aren’t thrilled, but they do offer them minimal support and arrange for Robert and Julia to head to New York. The Kruses are jewelers and their plan is for Robert to learn the trade from friends of theirs in the city and open a branch of their store there at some later date. Everything is proceeding smoothly and Julia gives birth to her eldest son, Johannes, shortly after arriving in New York. It’s an easy delivery and he is a happy baby, so she is surprised when the delivery of her second son, Nicholas, is difficult and she has to come home in a wheelchair, sick and accompanied by a nurse named Helene.
With all the help she is receiving, Julia is slowly able to recover, but just as she thinks life is about to get back to normal, the unthinkable happens. Robert and Helene abscond to Germany with Nicholas, leaving Julia to raise Johannes alone. Although she does her limited best to search for them, she is never able to locate them.
This story is actually told in a dual timeline format with the above taking place from 1910 through 1927, interspersed with chapters showing Julia in late 1945 working as a baker in a small but popular shop and dating an Irishman named Paul. Johannes has grown up and is in the army like most young men during that period were. Julia is more concerned, however, for Nicholas, whom she knows is in the worst part of the fighting since Germany is under deep allied attack by this point. She has never quite gotten over the loss of this child or the shamefulness of being left by her husband.
This book has several factors that I absolutely love in a novel. Both dual timeline stories and WWII narratives are big draws for me, and the author handles those aspects of the tale really well. The transitions between time periods are clearly marked and the historicity is excellent. There is a clear feeling of America in the 1940s to the tale, not just the gung-ho patriotism you see in a lot of novels but the reality of shortages, the fear of loss of a family member or friend, and the exhaustion of coping with the war and the subsequent stress for years on end. Another positive is the middle-aged romance presented. Paul and Julia are both in their forties and it was nice to see a love story that centers around people that age.
However, I had several issues with the story as well. I really wasn’t able to immerse myself in the narrative, and I didn’t find the characterization of Julia or any of the others very compelling or nuanced. We are never taken deep enough into their psyches to truly understand what drives them and are often left wondering as to the meaning and motivation behind their behaviors. Additionally, I didn’t understand why so much was made of Julia’s scholastic achievements only to have her go on to be a brilliant chef. Shouldn’t we, from the start, have been concentrating on her culinary abilities? It just seemed that aspect of the story was rather disjointed – we don’t see the beginnings of her interest in baking nor are we shown any impact of her academic gifts in her later life.
Robert’s behaviors are left in the mystery zone as well. He is close to Julia in her childhood but abruptly abandons her, and we are left in the dark as to how and why he fell so quickly in love with Helene. This left me feeling as though a large and important chunk of the story was missing.
The author takes pains to make the point that not all Germans were Nazis, but the story doesn’t examine the issue sufficiently to give us a perspective on how someone who wasn’t resisting the regime wasn’t complicit in it. As a result, every time this subject came up I found myself yanked out of the tale a bit as I tried to figure out what the point of the writer even mentioning that was.
The positives to The Lost Son are its intriguing premise and historicity. Those aren’t enough, however, for me to give this book a strong recommendation. If you are interested in that particular time period it might be worth a read but otherwise, I would give it a miss.
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