“Wunderland: A Novel” by Jennifer Cody Epstein— An Intimate Look at an Intimate Friendship

Epstein, Jennifer Cody. “Wunderland A Novel”,  Crown, 2019.

An Intimate Look at an Intimate Friendship

Amos Lassen

There are some books that have the “Wow” factor all the way through and there are some that have it from the very first sentence. This is the case with “Wunderland”. After reading just the first sentence I could tell that I would be doing nothing else until I finished the entire book. I was so glad that the weather was so lousy that I was confined to the house anyway but I was also locked in because I wanted to be. For the rest of the day it was me and “Wunderland”. Very basically this is the story of a friendship and motherhood against the backdrop of war.

Jennifer Cody Epstein begins her story in 1989 in New York’s East Village where we meet Ava Fisher and see that she and her mother, Ilse and she have a tenuous relationship even though they are estranged. Ava has so many unanswered questions— Who was her father? Where had her been during the war? Why had she left her only child in a German orphanage during the war’s final months?  Ava has just received her mother’s ashes from Germany and this reopens old wounds that have never really closed. With the ashes came a bunch of unsent letters  addressed to Renate Bauer, a name that Ava has never heard before and she learns was a childhood friend of her mother. The letters tell the story of her Ilse’s past that is causing Ava to sink into serious depression. Ava realizes that she never really knew her mother.

We go back in time to 1933 and to Berlin. The Nazi party tightens its grip on the city and Ilse and Renate find their friendship is like the German people— under siege with Ilse’s increasing involvement in the Hitler Youth movement and outs the two girls on opposing sides. Then the Nuremburg Laws force Renate to confront a long-buried past, and a major betrayal begins. We do not often get war stories told from the women’s point of view as we do here and it is a fascinating look at the most horrible period in the history of the world. The amount of research that writer Epstein did to bring us this story is staggering and it also shows how much she cared about the story she wrote. We are aware throughout of the history captured here and the facts became woven into the fabric of the story. We have two timelines coming together with many different perspectives about mothers and daughters, the lies we tell ourselves and the potential for humankind to engage in evil often starting with the lies we tell ourselves.

Epstein has written classic historical fiction with a story that goes back and forth between 1939 and 1989. In 1939, Berlin comes under attack and those Germans who have not had the experience of being raised according to “Nazi Gold Standard” can either flee the country or go into hiding. Ilse and Renate are two teenage girls who                        the best of friends, have no idea of what awaits them. Renate never would have imagined that her best friend was capable of a betrayal so vile that is shakes her faith in humanity. 
It is very difficult to write about such a terrible war as World War II with style and grace. I have always found emotions have been overpowering when thinking about the destruction of cities and the tremendous loss of lives that were the result of Hitler’s rise to power. Epstein has done such careful research that her story comes to us as very real and not necessarily fiction. Not many writers can do this successfully.

The beginning of “Wunderland” presents us with so much that it feels a tad heavy so I suggest that you take your time to get into the story—- once you do, there is no turning back. The novel begins with fragmented scenes from the main characters’ lives beginning in 1989 and then going back to  1933, then back to the initial character in 1977 and onto yet another character in 1937. It takes a bit of patience but you will be glad you held on. 
The story is related in the voices of three women—Ilse, Renate and Ava—and in different places and time periods, ranging from Germany in the 1930s to New York in 1977 and 1989. Each chapter identifies the character and the time making it less confusing. We not only hear from the characters but we go into their minds and see what they think. Epstein manages to make us put ourselves on hold and see things as we might have if we had been in Germany during the Nazi consolidation of power with Hitler’s vision for a glorious Germany galvanizing most of the nation.  The emotional appeal of extremist authoritarianism is all too horrifically clear.

Through Ilse and Renate we see how extremism replaced  moral and societal norms with a new ideology in which there is only one correct race and outlook, and those who don’t or can’t fit that ideology are first marginalized, then victimized and ultimately exterminated. The Nazis suddenly believed themselves to be superior, not because of anything they’ve done, but merely because they are “Aryans.” With no thought they turn on their non-Aryan friends and neighbors. Their victims can’t understand how they are now suddenly worthy only of contempt and cruelty by people they thought were fellow Germans and part of their community. Epstein’s tone is never didactic, yet it’s impossible to read this book and not think about the many people today who have learned nothing from history and are caught up in the same extremism and hateful thinking that only leads to alienation and destruction, not greatness.

The purpose of the Ilse/Ava element of the story, and the 1989 chapters is to relate what happened to Ilse, Renate and their families after 1939, and to reveal the pain that grew from Ilse’s and Germany’s Nazi past. These chapters give us an insight into the psyche of the disillusioned and authoritarian believer and any more than that about the plot would spoil the read. This is quite a beautiful book that I was prepared to dislike simply because of the war. I was pleasantly surprised to see otherwise. I recommend your reading and loving this book if for no other reason than to get a new and personal look at the world of WWII.

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