Martha Hall Kelly’s two novels, Lilac Girls and Lost Roses, are impeccably researched historical fiction stories based on real life women. Being a great fan of historical fiction, I was sure I would be enthralled by these very popular titles. Unfortunately, I was not.
Both novels have three narrators (points of view) where each narrator broadly represents a character in history during the wars. While the novels are are considered standalone, they are connected by Eliza and Caroline Ferriday, who were actual New York socialites in the early 20th century. She uses these women as the common thread between the two books; Eliza is featured in Lost Roses during WWI, while her daughter, Caroline, is featured in Lilac Girls during WWII. They represent the American women who weren’t in the middle of the action, but helped from afar. We also get a glimpse of America’s upper class during the wars and how little it affected them. Then there is a second point of view coming from someone in the role of the oppressed, such as Sofya, the cousin of the Romanovs in Russia whose family is captured and tortured by Bolshevist enemies; or Kasia, the Polish girl captured while being a courier for the underground resistance movement and sent to a concentration camp. The third point of view comes from someone caught in the middle who is forced to make decisions affecting the fate of the oppressed and their own lives. I thought this was an interesting way to show readers each angle of these dramatic stories. The first person point of view puts you in the minds of the character and you really feel the emotions they must have had while going through their experiences.
Lilac Girls is a WWII fictional novel focusing on the women’s prison, Ravensbruck, and the medical experiments conducted on healthy girls during the war. I wasn’t aware of this happening back then. Poland was not even considered a country by the Germans, and they treated the Polish like they weren’t even human. Polish women in Ravensbruck were selected to be unknowingly used in experiments to test the effects of severe injuries on the battlefield. If you aren’t aware of this, just Google the sulfa experiments and you will be horrified. Lilac Girls includes the narration of the only woman doctor involved in the experiments, Herta Oberhouser. I could barely stand to read these parts. She wasn’t aware this is what she’d ultimately take part in, but the fact is, she had to do it once she was there or she would have been killed for being a sympathizer. I still couldn’t feel sorry for her, though. The parts told in her voice were very hard to read. Caroline Ferriday is supposed to be the heroine in this novel. She has influence in America and fights for justice for the victims of the experiments after their escape. I think I was supposed to connect with Caroline and be enthralled by her good deeds, but I just wasn’t that impressed. The true heroes of this book is Kasia and fellow victims of the experiments. I think the title and the cover is misleading. This does not represent the story; as a matter of fact, lilacs weren’t even part of the story line. 😕
Kelly wrote Lost Roses after Lilac Girls and it takes us back to WWI and features Caroline’s mother, Eliza. I connected even less with Eliza. I found this story difficult to follow. The rhythm was choppy and lacked any drama. Eliza is again representing the American viewpoint and gives us a glimpse of the Russian revolution, while Sofya, her friend who is related to the Romanov aristocrat family, shows us how many upper class Russians denied any issues until they themselves were caught in the middle of the destruction. The third narrator, Varinka, was just an ordinary Russian who comes to work as a nanny for Sofya and ends up having a major part in the story. I never connected with any of these women, and since the story was so difficult to follow, I am sorry to say I did not enjoy reading the book.
It’s obvious Kelly’s novels were thoroughly researched, but the stories are missing the qualities that make them hard to put down. I found myself reading less because I wasn’t drawn into the stories. These are difficult subjects and hard to enjoy reading when the subject matter is so grim. I did learn a lot from reading these stories based on actual women in history. By the end of Lilac Girls, I was invested enough to genuinely want to find out what became of these brave women. It’s important that we honor the women who endured such atrocities and the women who fought for the innocent victims of these terrible tragedies. If you have an interest in women’s history and can stand seeing evil from the perspectives of the antagonists, you’ll want to read this.
Goodreads rating: 3 of 5 stars