Jack Wiseman is an elderly man who has only one regret in life. He asks his granddaughter Natalie to take a necklace that he has been keeping for seventy years. Jack want her to find the owner and return the jewelry. As Natalie digs into her family’s past, she discovers that her grandfather had a specific duty at the end of World War II. He guarded the Austrian Gold Train where the treasures and household goods of thousands of murdered Austrian Jews were stored.
Love and Treasure jumps around in time and perspective. The story begins with Jack as an elderly man, entrusting his granddaughter with this important task. The reader is then transported to Salzburg in 1945 and back to the present as Natalie’s quest takes her around the globe. Finally, the narrative follows the necklace itself as we discover its owner and its history. The first three sections are incredibly personal and immediate, while the final one is somewhat removed from the heart of the story. But it is fascinating if only because of the interesting choice of narrative voice. We learn about Nina, the original owner of the necklace, through the musing remembrances of her psychologist. These chapters take place in 1913 Budapest where peace reigns…except for the women fighting for rights and the anarchists staging loud and creative protests.
There is a plethora of novels that center around WWII, but this one focuses on a slightly different aspect. Jack is experiencing life after the war. While he idly guards the treasure, he sees the utter inability of the Allied forces to do anything meaningful for the victims of the Holocaust. Their belongings are taken, bit by bit, by Jack’s military superiors. Even if the belongings had been left on the train, how could Jack ever track down the owners of the thousands of similar wedding rings, watches, and sets of china? He is also privy to the additional victimization of the people who survived the concentration camps. Jack begins to date a woman named Ilona and sees firsthand just how hard it is for her to trust anyone. She and the other survivors are without a home and now without an identity.
In Love and Treasure, everything is more complicated than it first appears. It is nearly an impossible task to find the right home for the belongings of people long dead. And who decides where survivors should go when the people of their own countries turned against them? Ms. Waldman doesn’t shy away from difficulty here. She introduces us to Amitai Shasho, an art dealer in the present day who uses his heritage to make a good deal. We also read about the dissension among the Jewish people after the war – the Israelis who thought that the European Jews didn’t fight hard enough, the survivors who are determined to return to their homes, and those who discover their home are gone and journey to the only home they have left – Israel.
Love and Treasure is a good, if uneven, novel. While this is somewhat the story of Jack and his family, it is truly the story of a piece of jewelry that connects all of our characters. The jumping around in time and narrative is jarring and it is easy to want more in each storyline. The reader may wish that Waldman picked either the story of Jack and the Gold Train or the tumultuous events of 1913 as the topic for this book.
Love and Treasure
By Ayelet Waldman
Knopf April 2014