Review: The Things We Cherished

Romantic antics amid dark revelations

By Jessica Elgot, December 16, 2011

By Pam Jenoff
Sphere, £6.99

Meet Charlotte Gold, sassy lawyer who spurned the city to help criminal kids in Philadelphia. She has it all - or does she? Charlotte is secretly nursing a broken heart but could the man to make her happy have been there all along?

So far, so formulaic for a light-romantic novel. But Charlotte, in Pam Jenoff's latest, is ever so slightly more interesting than that - or has the potential to be.

Ex-boyfriend, Brian Harrington, who left Charlotte for another woman, now needs her academic expertise. Charlotte - the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor - is a student of post-war European history. A client of Brian's, Roger Dykmans, has been arrested for allegedly betraying his brother Hans, who was working to rescue Jewish children from camps in Poland.

Charlotte isn't the kind to tell Brian to get lost - or at least demand an extortionate fee. So, old passions well and truly stirred, she sets off for Munich, where an elderly Roger is refusing to co-operate with his defence attorney: Brian's brooding, sexy, older brother Jack.

Passion, when it does come, is tepid

Time splits, and we learn, in parallel chapters, the story of Roger and Hans Dykmans, and Hans's Jewish wife Magda. Roger, in love with his brother's wife, is given the opportunity by the Gestapo to free her - if he betrays Hans. In scenes across Germany, Poland and Italy, Charlotte and Jack try to search for the evidence to clear Roger's name.

There's more to The Things We Cherished than standard chick lit. The moral complexity of acts committed in the most desperate times has undeniable intrigue. It reminds us how guilt has shades of grey, and to consider whether it isn't too easy to write off Nazi collaborators as purely evil.

This is the fifth book from Jenoff, who prior to her literary success worked for the US state department in Krakow. She knows her history and engages with Europe's post-war challenges. But the human side of the book, particularly in its female characters, is lacking. Magda, the object of Roger's adoration, is no more than a flimsy, literary device. Charlotte, who should provide the antidote to the passive Magda, can't concentrate on her case for more than five minutes without thinking about a man. But passion, when it does come, is tepid.

An easy read, but little to challenge the brain or stir the heart.

Jessica Elgot is a JC reporter

Last updated: 11:10am, December 16 2011