Love & Treasure
Love and Treasure: A Novel by Ayelet Waldman. (Knopf, 334 pp. $26.95) Salzberg, 1945.
Salzberg, 1945. In the aftermath of World War II, American G.I. Jack Wiseman is commanded to guard the warehouse of items that had been looted by the Nazis from Hungary’s Jews and transported to Austria on the “gold train.” While overseeing the furniture, jewelry and Judaica, Jack falls in love with Ilona, a death-camp survivor living in the city’s displaced persons community. Turning down his proposal to return to New York with him, she immigrates to Palestine, and a heartbroken Jack pilfers from the war spoils a beautiful gold-and-enamel locket that oddly reminds him of Ilona, though its real provenance is unknown. The locket—and Jack’s guilt over having taken it—accompany him back to the States and remain with him throughout his lifetime.
Fast-forward, in Ayelet Waldman’s ambitious novel, to Maine, 2013: As Jack nears death, he summons his newly divorced granddaughter, Natalie, to his home. Presenting her with the locket, he informs her that it hadn’t belonged to her grandmother, as she had always assumed, and urges her to find the necklace’s rightful owner. Initially curious and then obsessed, Natalie travels to Europe, where she meets Amitai, a Syrian-Jewish dealer in Nazi-looted art. Together, they thwart the schemes of an Israeli art historian who wants the object for his own and solve the mystery of the locket—but not before first falling in love.
Back again to Budapest, 1913, where we readers “eavesdrop” on the psychoanalytic sessions of a young woman named Nina, one of the characters in the locket’s complicated backstory, which also includes a family of dwarves and a group of Hungarian suffragettes. Here, Waldman provides a new cast of characters and, through their stories, a perhaps too-thorough examination of the lives of upper-middle-class European Jews before the war.
And then, finally, just as readers may begin to tire of Nina and her analyst, Waldman carries us forward, one last time, to present-day New York, where Natalie reflects on all that has happened to her, to her grandfather, to Europe’s Jews and to the locket itself over 100 years.
In her first novel to center on Jewish themes, Waldman grapples with several important questions: Who owns art whose owners have been murdered? Is there a statute of limitations on a lover’s guilt? Who rescues the rescuers from themselves?
And although her deft writing occasionally lapses into airport-paperback cliché, the author has created characters complex enough and situations sufficiently compelling that we are willing to ride along with her, across continents and over time, to ponder these questions and (not incidentally) to be well entertained along the way.