The Words I Never Wrote
Set during the tumultuous era encompassing WWII, The Words I Never Wrote is an interesting take on how easily we can misunderstand those we love.
Our story begins with an elderly journalist receiving yet another award. Cordelia Capel already has a Pulitzer, has previously been honored with the White House Correspondents Association Award and this latest trophy will be just one more piece of memorabilia gathering dust on her overcrowded shelves. It is not the keepsake Cordelia wants. “If I have to have a memento as I sit here in my apartment in the summer of my ninety-sixth year,” she tells us, “I would choose the snow globe from the nursery at Birnham Park.”
That snowglobe had been unique. Custom made in London, it depicted Cordelia’s childhood home in England – the aforementioned Birnham Park – in perfect detail, including the two little girls who lived there. Cordelia and her older sister Irene are reproduced perfectly within the glass orb, playing on the lavish lawn of their miniaturized home. Theirs was a happy childhood, with the sisters being boon companions, who grew up to be accomplished, elegant, beautiful young women. All is bliss till 1936, when Irene gets engaged to Ernst Weissmuller, a German industrialist who plans to take her to Germany after the honeymoon. At the wedding, while wondering what to do with her own future, Cordelia impetuously agrees to work for a friend of her father’s as a secretary for the Paris office of his newspaper. As if she had sensed this would be in Cordelia’s future, Irene’s surprise gift to her sister, given as she leaves for her honeymoon, is an Underwood Portable typewriter.
In New York City in 2016, Juno Lambert is looking for the perfect prop for the portrait she is doing of an actress in a Tennessee Williams play. She plans to capture a 1940s feel in the picture, and decides to add a vintage typewriter to the paraphernalia she is including in the shot. She purchases an Underwood Portable typewriter that comes with a bonus; a 150 page story about two sisters separated by politics during WWII, written by the elderly owner right before she died.
Told from three different viewpoints – Irene, Cordelia, and Juno – this is a difficult book to review. I found the start of the tale mesmerizing. Knowing what was happening in Germany in the late 1930s, and being cognizant that France would fall to Nazi invaders just four years after Cordelia got there, I was anxious to find out what would develop with our innocent, oblivious heroines. Oddly, one thing that didn’t happen was Cordelia becoming a reporter. She covered Paris fashion for the paper for a time but mostly, after that opening chapter which spoke of her amazing career, Cordelia did whatever would help the plot move forward. Because she felt more like a tool for the development of the story line than an actual character, I had trouble connecting with her portion of the tale.
Irene’s life is the strongest and most interesting narrative in the book. She quickly realizes that neither her husband nor the situation in Germany are what she had been led to expect. Having befriended Ernest’s Jewish secretary when she first arrived, Irene has a front row seat at the rapid deterioration of the lives of Jewish people within the regime and has to decide how she will respond to the increasing horrors they face. She’s a brave and resourceful woman, taking risks few of us would have the courage for. Shockingly, she can’t write about any of this to her sister Cordelia because the SS makes a habit of examining foreign national’s correspondence. (Of course I’m being sarcastic there.) What was genuinely shocking was that the idea of censorship never occured to Cordelia, in spite of the fact that she had been told numerous times that the Nazi party employed the Gestapo to control the information that came out of the country. She thought that because Irene never spelled out her hatred of the Nazis in her letters, and never left her husband, she must be a Nazi sympathizer and so she cut off all contact with her. I found this simplistic view of the world on Cordelia’s part rather annoying. Or rather, I found this particular gimmick used by the author to create a separation between the sisters to be a deus ex machina. Indeed, in many ways both Juno and Cordelia seemed to exist simply to give us the story of Irene, making them almost superfluous to the tale.
Another factor related to that issue that I found irritating was the endless mansplaining put forth by Cordelia’s love interest regarding politics and ideology. I’ll grant that she needed to learn a few things but the method the author uses infantilized her. Along that same vein, the author does a giant information dump at the end of the book in Juno’s portion of the story to tell us what happened in the last thirty to fifty years in the lives of both sisters. I truly appreciated the information but struggled with how it all came out in a few brief conversations. Juno did have a storyline of her own, but I struggled to connect with her as a character as well. The most interesting portions of her story were not her own – they were what we found out about the post-war lives of Cordelia and Irene.
The complaints listed above were detriments to my enjoyment of the novel but there were many positives to the book as well. The author weaves her elegant prose with rich historical detail, covering everything from hats shaped like lamb chops in 1930s Paris fashion shows to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the atrocities of Nazi Germany. I especially appreciated her look at the kind of thinking which allowed Hitler to take power and how that thinking became corrosive, allowing for a greater and greater decay of conscience. Like most authors writing about that time period, Ms. Thynne skillfully weaves real life characters into her text. Irene attends several parties given by high ranking Nazis and meets interesting historical personages like Martha Dodd and Kim Philby. Ms. Thynne also does a marvelous job of incorporating the working class German’s “sardonic humor” which in the war years was “as black and bitter as Turkish coffee” into her tale. One of the scenes in a bomb shelter captures that dark joviality brilliantly and humanizes, for a brief instant, the ordinary people going through extraordinary events. Many writers demonize the Germans of that era but Ms. Thynne wisely shows us that these were people who had gone down a horrifically wrong path, whose pride in their country and way of life subsumed their decency and intellect. That highlights their actions as all the more chilling and despicable.
The Words I Never Wrote is an epic story which struggles to live up to its ambitions. It’s certainly an interesting read and one I think will satisfy readers who love dual timeline novels from the WWII era, although it lacks the brilliance to appeal outside that niche market.