I haven’t read a Holocaust book since Anne Frank back in middle school, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to read one when I cracked open The Sweetness of Forgetting by Kristen Harmel. But that’s exactly what I got.
Hope McKenna-Smith is a recently divorced bakery owner in Cape Cod. She’s having a great deal of difficulty balancing her moodier-than-ever 13-year-old daughter, Annie, and her already-dating-someone-new tool of an ex-husband; she’s trying to keep her bakery afloat despite a severe lack of money, and she’s trying to take care of her Alzheimer’s-ridden grandmother, Rose, with whom she is extremely close. It’s not going too well for Hope.
Rose Durand McKenna’s memory is slipping away more and more every day, and before she loses it entirely she feels a strong urge to tell her granddaughter, Hope, the secrets of her well-hidden past. These secrets are as follows: Rose Durand was really Rose Picard, a Jewish girl from France, and her whole family — mother, father, older and younger siblings — was taken to the concentration camps during World War II. Rose escaped because the love of her life, Jacob, smuggled her into the home of a Muslim family, where she hid for a while before going to Spain, where she met an American soldier named Ted, who brought her back to America, where she then changed her identity and religion (Catholic) and never spoke of her French/Jewish roots ever again. Until now.
Hope learns all of the above by looking into World War II records with the help of her daughter and almost-more-than-friend Gavin. She travels to Paris to see if there are any Picards left, and she finds Rose’s little brother Alain, who also miraculously managed to escape the Nazis. On this trip Hope learns Jacob is still alive and living in the United States, and he is actually the father of her mother/Rose’s daughter, Josephine, now deceased, making him Hope’s true grandfather. It turns out Rose and Jacob were secretly married just before she escaped Nazi-occupied France.
The story is certainly a whirlwind, but the parts where Rose is reunited with her brother and then Jacob are really moving, as you can imagine, and I like that although these revealed secrets cause some identity crises for Hope and Annie, the focus is more on Rose. I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised by the depth and emotion of this book, as Harmel usually writes fairly silly chick lit (i.e. How to Sleep with a Movie Star). Overall, very well done.