Book: Resistance Women
Author: Jennifer Chiaverini
Narrator: Saskia Maarleveld
BECHDEL TEST: PASS-Greta, Mildred and Sara talk about their resistance work.
Content Warnings: War, anti-Semitism, genocide, execution, infertility, miscarriage, imprisonment, mention of abortion, pregnancy, infidelity, mentions of concentration camps, Nazism
Resistance Women was recommended to me by Brittany, a friend of mine in the YA Addicted Book Club on Goodreads, and I was really excited for it, because I listened to a podcast episode last year about Mildred Fish-Harnack and I really wanted to learn more about her, and the other members of the Rote Kappelle (Red Orchestra). I also found out that Saskia Maarleveld, one of my favourite audiobook narrators was the narrator for this one, so naturally that made me even more excited. Sadly, I was a little bit underwhelmed, whilst this book was undoubtedly well researched, it was also far too long, and a little dry, I didn’t get all the emotions I would have expected from a book about this time period. Here is a short synopsis of the book:
After Wisconsin graduate student Mildred Fish marries brilliant German economist Arvid Harnack, she accompanies him to his German homeland, where a promising future awaits. In the thriving intellectual culture of 1930s Berlin, the newlyweds create a rich new life filled with love, friendships, and rewarding work—but the rise of a malevolent new political faction inexorably changes their fate.
As Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party wield violence and lies to seize power, Mildred, Arvid, and their friends resolve to resist. Mildred gathers intelligence for her American contacts, including Martha Dodd, the vivacious and very modern daughter of the US ambassador. Her German friends, aspiring author Greta Kuckoff and literature student Sara Weiss, risk their lives to collect information from journalists, military officers, and officials within the highest levels of the Nazi regime.
For years, Mildred’s network stealthily fights to bring down the Third Reich from within. But when Nazi radio operatives detect an errant Russian signal, the Harnack resistance cell is exposed, with fatal consequences.
So my biggest problem, as I mentioned at the top of this review, and which is a reoccurring theme on this blog, was pacing. This is an incredibly long audiobook, at over 20 hours, and it covers a long period of time, from 1929-1946. But for me, things didn’t really pick up until 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor, and I understand why Chiaverini started the story earlier, because she wanted to show how Hitler came to power but for me personally, because I already know quite a lot about Nazi Germany (a combination of being a history nerd and just covering it a lot in school), I didn’t feel like the background was totally necessary. The book as a whole just felt overly long, it’s 17 years of history packed into one book, that’s probably really several books worth of content there! I did appreciate that for the most part, the chapters were relatively short though, it kept things ticking along nicely.
I naturally loved the narration, I’ve listened to several books narrated by Saskia Maarleveld before and she’s definitely one of my favourite narrators, this book was no exception! I still marvel at her ability to slip in and out of different accents, this book is mainly American and German but she does show off a few other accents as well.
Chiaverini has definitely done her research, there is so much historical detail crammed in and though I’ve not done extensive research into the Red Orchestra myself, from what I do know, it’s all very accurate. I would actually say this book trends toward a little too much detail, and I never usually say that for historical fiction as I love history and learning more about the past, but occasionally in this book, there did seem to be slightly more detail than was really needed for the story.
The chapters all cover quite long periods of time, it’s a good three-six months covered in each chapter and I found that made it hard for me to keep track of where I was in the story. I’d be thinking it was January of one year, and all of a sudden, there’d be some mention of summer! It got easier to keep track of the timeline further through the book but I think I would have preferred it if the chapters hadn’t covered such a wide span of time. This again comes back to the book trying to do too much I think, 17 years in one book is just a lot! There’s one chapter at the end, the epilogue, that covers THREE YEARS, that’s just so much, there could have easily been three chapters just for that.
The writing could be a little dry, the author definitely had a tendency of telling you what was going on rather than showing you, and it was all done in a very matter of fact way, so I felt like some of the emotional situations the characters find themselves in lost some of their impact, because the writing was so dry.
I found that this problem extended into the characters’ relationships. We’re told what the characters relationships are to each other, we’re told that Mildred and Greta are old friends, that Arvid and Greta had an academic rivalry, that Mildred was a professor of Sara’s but we’re never really given a chance to see those friendships for ourselves. I didn’t find a lot of the characters’ relationships believable because I was just told what they were to each other, I didn’t feel like Chiaverini showed us through their actions.
I found a lot of the characters themselves quite flat as well, which I wasn’t expecting because all of these people did such awesome things, and I found their actual real life stories so fascinating but somehow Chiaverini’s novelisation of events took a lot of the spark out of these people for me. I was very inspired by Mildred and Greta’s real life actions but found that their book counterparts fell kind of flat.
The only character that I felt a real emotional connection with was the only fictional one, Sara Weitz, the Jewish character in the story. Sara’s emotions and the stark reality of what she faced as a Jewish woman under the Nazis, made her the most engaging narrator of the four. Sadly her story was left kind of unfinished, as she dropped out of the story towards the end. I would have liked it if the author had been able to feature some real Jewish women of the resistance, I understand why she created Sara as she needed someone who would feasibly be able to interact with Mildred and Greta and there were no real life Jewish women from the Rote Kappelle who could fill that role, but I just found it a shame that the only main Jewish character in the story was fictional (not to take anything away from Sara, because I did love her!).
Martha Dodd’s chapters seemed kind of extraneous, I wasn’t really sure what she added as a POV character, and I don’t think she really needed to be, especially as she was only present for one part of the book. I think the events that occurred in her chapters could easily have been covered by Mildred, and that would have slimmed down the book a little.
I was expecting a little more action and intrigue for a book centred around a resistance network! A lot of the book is largely slice of life which is fine, but it’s not really my bag and not what I was expecting, I was expecting a lot more of an in-depth look at the Red Orchestra’s resistance activities, but that actually ended up playing a fairly small role. It did however have me looking up all the Red Orchestra members to see what happened to them, which is always a mark of historical fiction writers doing their jobs right as I always want to come out wanting to know more about the real history when reading historical fiction.
One thing that I found kind of a cool connection is that Adam and Greta Kuckhoff were arrested on my birthday, 12th September, which really has nothing to do with my thoughts on the book at all, I just noticed it whilst I was listening and thought it was interesting, it’s kind of amazing the connections you can have with people who you never met and who died long before you were born!
Given that the story covers almost twenty years, I would have expected more development from the characters as they aged, Mildred, Greta and Sara all felt very much the same in 1929 as they did ten or even fifteen years later!
There were some small editing errors where Martha and Mildred were mixed up and a chapter that was in Martha’s point of view would suddenly switch to being in Mildred’s and vice versa, that probably should have been caught before the book was published.
I did think the author did a really good job of capturing the atmosphere of both pre-war and WWII Berlin, and showing how conditions spiralled downwards for people as the Nazis gained power.
I was really glad the author’s note was included in this audiobook, as they aren’t always, and I love learning more about historical fiction authors’ approaches to researching the real life people that their books centre around or feature.
I did find the ending very emotional, even though I knew what was coming because I had previously listened to a podcast episode about Mildred Fish-Harnack. The story of poor Liane Berkowitz really hit me as well, I’d not heard of her before reading this book, and she was just so young, basically still a child. Even though he was fictional, I also felt a lot for what happened to Sara’s brother Natan, because he, like me, was a journalist and it was just horrible to see the kinds of things that you would face under the Nazis for daring to publish the truth (obviously even more so if you were Jewish).
Overall, I did enjoy this book, but not quite as much as I thought it would. The real life people behind the story are fascinating, but I feel like Chiaverini didn’t get that across as well as she could have? I also really appreciated the research that obviously went into the book, but felt it tipped the line into just a little too much, and that the characters and plot kind of suffered from the author’s need to show the readers just how much she knew about the time period. It was also far longer than it needed to be, whilst also covering too much ground. I actually think if the author had split this into multiple books, it probably would have turned out better, she was trying to do too much in one, and the story ended up suffering for it. Having said all that, I do appreciate Chiaverini highlighting a previously overlooked resistance group, and there were things I did love about this book, like the narration, the character of Sara, and the way the author captured the atmosphere of Berlin under the Nazis, so it wasn’t all a total loss.
My Rating: 3/5
My next review will be of one of my other February audiobook reads, Her Hidden Genius by Marie Benedict, which I will probably have up either tomorrow or over the weekend!