Book Reviews

Book Review: The Novelist from Berlin by V.S. Alexander – Life From the Weimar to the Soviets

I would like to thank Goodreads, Kensington Press, and V.S. Alexander for the advance reader copy of this book. What follows is my unbiased review.

Inspired by a true story, this book tells the story of a woman who lived in Berlin and who stood up to the Nazis as best she could. It was an easy and engrossing read, if much of it felt like stories I had read before. There’s not much that hasn’t been written about the era of Nazi Germany and the ensuing war, but there are some different angles here.

At 18 years of age, Marie Rittenhaus leaves the house she grew up in – and her widowed mother – to strike out on her own in Berlin. It’s 1929, and jobs are hit or miss. Marie changes her name to Niki and goes through a series of men as she tries to survive, along with her friend, Lotti. One night, she spots Rickard Langer at a bar they frequent. He’s a movie producer in Berlin. At first, Niki wants a break with a part in the movie. However, the two develop a relationship and she moves in with him.

Rickard represents the “golden ring” for a woman like Niki. He’s wealthy and dotes on her, expecting little in return. He’s divorced and estranged from his first wife and his son. The Sturmabteilung (SA), the paramilitary part of the Nazi Party, is making life rough for people in Berlin, though. They focus on Rickard as being able to help them with propaganda films. Afraid of standing up to them, he goes along, thinking that it might keep him and the studio afloat.

Niki isn’t so sure. Rickard’s relationship with the Nazis makes her uncomfortable, but she’s pregnant. When she tells Rickard they are married, and it would seem her chance of getting out from under Nazi rule is gone. She’s turned to writing books of her own. The first is about “The New German Woman” which is semi-autobiographical about the lives she and Lotti lived. The second is a tale of the Nazis, disguised in the form of vampires. When the Nazis do come to power, her books are banned. She attempts to sue them for loss of income, but the case is in a court controlled by them.

As Rickard falls to the Nazis more and more, Niki feels she must break from him, and leaves with their daughter. However, there are benefits to being in league with the Nazis and they help him find them. Rickard doesn’t want to lose another child, but Niki will not come back to him.

The story here is good as it spans the time from 1929 into the 1960s. Life under the Soviets is no different, really, than the Nazis. Marie/Niki’s story is told in the first person so we follow her throughout her life. She goes to great lengths to survive the Nazi regime and the ensuing war. At one point she leaves Germany for Amsterdam, but the Germans invade there as well. She finds herself part of the Dutch Resistance and makes small strikes back at them. However, events send her back to Germany, and she becomes determined to reunite with her daughter.

There are many details of life during this time. Things might have seemed pleasant at times, but there always seemed to be an undercurrent of foreboding. Of course, as the reader, we know what is going to happen in history. Particularly after the war, when I knew the Iron Curtain was going to come down on Berlin and East Germany, I found myself not wanting to stop reading to see what would happen. It’s hard to create good suspense in this history, but the author managed to do it.

The story here is based on the real-life author, Irmgard Keun. There are many parallels between her life and Marie/Niki’s. The story is well-written and flows nicely. Marie wants to be independent, but at the time a woman needed a man. Niki and Lotti flit from man to man in pursuit of this “independence.” I found it to be more that they weren’t tying themselves down, but still needed the attention and money that being in a relationship entailed. It’s the closest to “independence” that they could manage at the time.

I liked how Marie/Niki grew during the course of the book. When she leaves home, she holds her mother in contempt and doesn’t care if she ever sees her again. However, as time goes on she sees things differently. At first, it’s just consideration that brings her back to her mother’s door, then desperation when she leaves Rickard along with their daughter. Her mother mellows a bit as well, but it’s more Marie/Niki who changes her outlook. I really liked how the relationship between them evolves.

I give this my recommendation It was easy and compelling to read, even if the characters aren’t always likable. They are humans with faults and not always likable. However, none of them deserve what happens under the Nazis or Soviets.

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