I read this one over 20 years ago and at the time I remember I really really loved it. I can't tell you why, so I guess I need to re-read it. ;)
Just finished re-reading this, and I had to knock it down to 3 stars from 4. Initially I loved this book; the story, which follows mainly three children of the Frankfurt Wertheim family throughout the first half of the 20th century, was a joy to plunge back into. Tennenbaum shines at describing settings; she has a feel for the times -- mainly the first 33 years of the century -- and with just a couple paragraphs can put you in a run-down apartment or glamorous mansion. When she has a mind to, she also creates memorable characters whose interactions are believable. I found myself becoming invested in their lives.
The problem(s) I've found in re-reading this book range from grammar (far too many comma splices, they don't need to be there) to perhaps the two largest problems: too many characters and a tendency to grow didactic with "dialogue" regarding Nazism. I understand that there are readers who do not know much about the history of WWII, and that some historical context and explanation is necessary. But there is far too much historical instruction in the guise of dialogue and letters, and they slow down the novel and become a little too unbelievable. This may be the main problem encountered by fiction writers who incorporate political issues into their works - it is a fine line to draw and a difficult one to navigate. Tennenbaum is not very successful in her navigation.
This could be less of an issue, however, if not for her characters. I won't go into how many there are, but in creating a large family, and in covering 43 years of history, she has overstretched herself. To keep the consistency she begins in the first section of the book, she would need another 300-500 pages or a sequel.
There are four initial Wertheim children, Emma, Helene, and two twin boys, Andreas and Ernst. Ernst eventually moves to Palestine and disappears altogether. At the end of the novel, when Tennenbaum tries to wrap things up and tell us what happened to the bulk of the Werheims under the Nazis, Ernst has completely vanished from the story. As I read the last chapter, which spans 1938-1945, I kept wondering if any of the kids were going to contact Ernst, or if he was going to contact them, worried for their safety. Although it's possible Ernst withdrew from his twins-connection with Andreas because Andreas is gay, it's just not believable that he wouldn't say something, or contact someone, about the safety of the family he left behind. Early on in the novel, Tennenbaum mentions the twins-bond the boys have. Then poof! Ernst is just -- gone. Ernst is mentioned, what, maybe twice in the last 100 or more pages? Some further interaction between the brothers would have been interesting and more believable.
These four have some cousins who appear sporadically, and an uncle, Jonah, who we read very little about for the first 350 pages or so; in fact, it seems like his main purpose is to show him as a victim of Nazism and his Gentile wife who abandons him. They have several unnamed children who have nothing to do with their Jewish cousins -- it's as if oh suddenly here's Jonah, because we need a victim. (He does make a short previous appearance, and is a stuck-up snob, but there isn't much mention of him before this until his section on being a Nazi victim).
The character of Edu, who is a rather controlling uncle of the Wertheim kids and who has moved to Switzerland and escaped the fate of many Jews in Germany, disappears also in the last chapter. We see a lot of him before this, so the lack of his response, (also the lack of response by Emma), to the Holocaust, is disconcerting and peculiar. The end of the novel doesn't tie things up, actually, and I am left feeling disappointed. One thing Tennenbaum does well in that last chapter is of making readers feel the loss of the characters -- there is an emotional investment and it is hard to read of the fates of the family members. But there is only partial conclusion, and it feels unfinished. Because she spends so much time with Edu and Emma, for example, through the book, to have them vanish into the ether at the end is problematic.
The unevenness in which characters appear when is the most difficult aspect of this novel - coming and going, non-existent until suddenly they appear only to be killed off. Perhaps a smaller family would have been more manageable, or just focusing on the same four characters throughout the entire novel. Tennenbaum is ambitious in the number of years she covers -- all major years in German history -- and the size of the family she writes about. The scope, in the end, is just too large, and the last chapter is far too much telling history versus telling a story.
A disappointing re-read, but I can't completely un-recommend it if you like family sagas or Jewish and German 20th century history.
(One other discrepancy that is puzzling is the way Lene's daughter Clara/Claire, who made it to New York with her mother and a stepfather and half-brother, claims that she knew practically nothing about her family and about how they would have been Holocaust victims. This stretches the imagination to the breaking point, because she lived in the same house with her grandmother and aunt until she was nearly 10 years old. Her mother's nanny traveled with her to America, and it's unbelievable that someone so devoted to the Wertheim children would not have spoken to Clara/Claire about them).