Love and Treasure author Ayelet Waldman has written seven mystery novels, The Mommy-Track Mysteries, and three other works of fiction but is probably best known for Bad Mother, which set off a lively controversy when first published in the US in 2009.
None of these will prepare readers for Love and Treasure, part thriller, part love story, part historical novel. The book tells three stories in one, all connected with a beautiful pendant “on which was painted a brilliant peacock decorated with gemstones”.
This first appears in the possession of an elderly Jewish American, Jack Wiseman, who is sick with cancer. He shows it to his granddaughter, Natalie, and we soon discover that the pendant is part of the treasure from a mysterious Hungarian gold train that turns up in Salzburg at the end of the war. Where does this treasure come from? Who does it belong to? And what is the story of the peacock pendant?
The book is, first, a set of love stories, involving three different couples all somehow connected with the pendant. Three men — an American infantry officer, an Israeli art dealer and a Hungarian psychoanalyst — meet and fall in love with three different women.
The peacock (beautifully depicted on the cover by illustrator Carrie May) is not just a precious object; it comes to stand for love and memory. But the plot thickens as the characters become embroiled in complicated questions about rights, ownership and restitution in post-war, central Europe.
In the first two parts of the novel, in particular, Waldman uses her forensic training as a lawyer to explore questions about how — and whether — we restore objects to the families of the objects’ pre-war owners who have been killed. To whom do these objects now belong? In a world of claims and counter-claims, some driven by greed, others by patriotism or justice, which claim should prevail? This gives moral seriousness to what is essentially a romantic novel.
Waldman should also receive credit for the quality of her research. She has read widely in the history of both pre-First World War Budapest and post-war central Europe, and in psychoanalysis. However, this is where the problems begin. Love and Treasure hardly compares with Graham Greene’s The Third Man or D M Thomas’s tale of psychoanalysis and the Holocaust, The White Hotel. Both are darker, more morally complex and, crucially, better written.
In Love and Treasure, Waldman creates an interesting enough cast of characters and pulls them together into a readable story. But there is not a beautiful or even especially interesting sentence in the book, no gripping twist or turn, and some might wonder whether human suffering deserves to be turned into chick-lit.