I don't think there are really any spoilers, but I've gotten some email asking for the details of why I loved this book, & since I'm dying to talk about it more, here goes
[Stop reading if you want to finish the book first but haven't. Stop reading if your name is Landon.]
Ok, you've been warned.
A friend described this book as "ok" without any extraordinary plot twists. Although I enjoyed the plot, my friend is right—the beauty of Ashes is not primarily in the plot.
First, it was the voice. Gabriella genuinely sounded like a 13yo girl at the outset, & her gushing commentary on actresses & movies of the time had an unusual combination of genuine 13yo girl & really having grown up during the first run of those movies—at the very least, I believed that the author had spent weeks watching & rewatching period films to try to see what 13yo girls would have seen at the time.
Then there was the description of Einstein. At first, I was a little put out by it. I mean, it's kind-of fun for him to turn up as a minor character, but…he was so undeveloped in his first fleeting appearance, that it seemed kind-of gimmicky. But his mannerisms…were actually quite vivid. His lack of development early on made sense, too, when I thought of him as a colleague of the main character’s father—not someone she’d pay that much attention to. As the book progresses…there were a lot of little things that added up to a strong supporting character. My favorite? Einstein almost stepping on her as he crossed the lawn, both coming to visit her father and going home later that night.
These impressed me, kept me reading, made me enjoy the process. The perspective added a lot, too: I haven’t seen anything (that I can think of) written about this period (PRE-WWII) or from this point of view (non-Jewish). A fresh look at something is always intriguing to me.
But what took my breath away in a time-slowing surreal sort of way was the book burning. Of course it’s bad to burn books. We all know that. But I’ve never thought about the experience of a book burning, of being surrounded by people who madly cheer the process.
It was the scent of the Linden trees being overcome by the scent of burning paper that made everything stop for me. Who but a first-hand observer would know of something as minute as the scent of a Linden tree? And who but a writer would pause to notice?
It was this combination of details that are indiscernible by research and clarity that cannot be captured by a witness that captivated me. How did she know, I found myself wondering. How could she? I calculated and recalculated Lasky’s possible age, knowing this could not be a first-hand account but unable to accept that research could be so seamless, so authentic, so thorough.
She explains in an afterword as she thanks the people who contributed to the authenticity of the work. From German phrases threaded in and out of conversations—as if that language were more natural than English—to the names of shops and breads and stars, I believe in Gabriella. I believe in her world, her shame, her voice. And for the first time, I have a glimpse of the Germany she did not want to leave behind.