Ayelet Waldman’s Love & Treasure is a complex and thought-provoking novel, with a plot inspired by the real-life Hungarian Gold Train of World War II. Gold, jewels, and valuables worth millions of dollars were stolen from Hungarian Jews, and discovered by American soldiers on a long train of forty boxcars at the end of the war. Waldman uses an object from the train—an unusual pendant depicting with the image of a peacock—as a framework for linking three intricately woven fictional narratives. The result is a layered story about guilt, redemption, love, and survival.
The Story: Waldman begins the novel in present-day Maine with Jack Wiseman, a retired classics professor who is dying of cancer. Jack gives his granddaughter Natalie, a young lawyer reeling from the failure of her marriage, an Art Nouveau pendant of enamel and semi-precious stones with an unusual design of a peacock. Natalie had worn the pendant on her ill-fated wedding day, wrongly assuming it had belonged to her deceased grandmother. Jack explains that he had removed it from the Hungarian Gold Train, and asks that Natalie restore it to its rightful owner.
The reader travels to Salzburg in 1945, where Jack, as a young Jewish Army officer, is given the responsibility of cataloging the contents of the gold train. He meets and falls in love with a survivor of Auschwitz named Ilona, a Hungarian woman searching for any sign of her sister, the last remaining member of her family. The narrative then switches to present-day Budapest, where Natalie crosses paths with Amitai, an Israeli war hero turned art dealer who tracks artworks looted during the Holocaust and returns them to the owners’ descendants. Amitai is searching for a Surrealist painting, which seems to depict a woman wearing the same peacock pendant that Natalie received from Jack. In the final of the three narratives, set in 1913 Budapest, Waldman tells the tale of a young woman named Nina through the point of view of her pompous Freudian pyschoanalyst, Dr. Zobel. Nina, a suffragist and intellectual, rebels against the strictures of her parents, who wish to settle her into an arranged marriage.
What I Thought: I’ve never read Ayelet Waldman before, but when I heard about the premise of this novel, I was intrigued. And it really is an excellent premise. Like many readers of literary fiction, I have read dozens of fictional accounts of World War II and the Holocaust, and sometimes I feel like I can’t bear to experience yet another re-telling of the heart-breaking atrocities of the era. But Love & Treasure is a unique book, and Waldman brings fresh light to the time period by considering it from different angles. She deftly describes the appalling experiences of Holocaust survivors and other displaced persons in the postwar years, which is an aspect of the time period not often covered in fiction.
For me, the most compelling and powerful of the three linked narratives was the postwar story of Jack, the well-meaning American officer, and the emotionally damaged Ilona. The middle narrative, of Natalie and Amitai, felt not fully satisfying to me, with some forced and clichéd love scenes and a treasure hunt caper that seemed perhaps too unlikely. Natalie and Amitai didn’t feel like fully developed characters to me, at least in comparison to other characters in the novel, and so I found it difficult to connect with them emotionally.
A number of other reviewers have expressed that they found the final story of Nina, as told through her psychoanalyst, to be lacking in interest. For me, it was fairly fascinating. I appreciated Waldman’s amusing satire of early twentieth century Freudian analysis; Dr. Zobel is obsessed with Nina, and yet absurdly certain of his own detachment and his ability to “cure” his patient of her “hysteria” and menstrual cramps.
I do recommend Love & Treasure to those who like literary fiction and historical fiction. It is a moving and haunting novel that I will not soon forget. I rate the novel 4 out of 5 stars.
I listened to Love & Treasure as an audiobook, and the narration by Jonathan Davis and Paul Hecht was very good.