Synopses & Reviews
In 1938, seventeen-year-old Beatrice, an Irish Protestant lace maker, finds herself at the center of a fairy tale when she is whisked away from her dreary life to join the Berlin household of Felix and Dorothea Metzenburg. Art collectors, and friends to the most fascinating men and women in Europe, the Metzenburgs introduce Beatrice to a world in which she finds more to desire than she ever imagined.
But Germany has launched its campaign of aggression across Europe, and, before long, the conflict reaches the Metzenburgs’ threshold. Retreating with Beatrice to their country estate, Felix and Dorothea do their best to preserve the traditions of the old world. But the realities of hunger and illness, as well as the even graver threats of Nazi terror, the deportation and murder of Jews, and the hordes of refugees fleeing the advancing Red Army begin to threaten their existence. When the Metzenburgs are forced to join a growing population of men and women in hiding, Beatrice, increasingly attached to the family and its unlikely wartime community, bears heartrending witness to the atrocities of the age and to the human capacity for strength in the face of irrevocable loss.
In searing physical and emotional detail, The Life of Objects illuminates Beatrice’s journey from childhood to womanhood, from naïveté to wisdom, as a continent collapses into darkness around her. It is Susanna Moore’s most powerful and haunting novel yet.
"In Moore's (In the Cut) latest novel, objects have complicated lives they're bought, collected, requisitioned, buried, stolen, sold, and bartered and so do people. It's Germany during WWII, and strange and awful occurrences are becoming common. Even the rich and politically connected Felix and Dorothea Metzenburg can no longer guarantee their safety or that of Beatrice Palmer, the book's narrator, who, in a series of unlikely circumstances, has come from Ireland to work for them. The bulk of the story takes place on Dorothea's country estate, to which the family, with 23 wagons of Felix's art and objects, retreat when Berlin becomes untenable. There the war switches between a distant rumor on illegal radio broadcasts and, with food shortages, disappearances, and bombings, a reality. It becomes clear that Felix's moral and aesthetic sensibilities will not allow him to cooperate with the National Socialist state. Although the book starts slowly, once we're accustomed to Beatrice's measured style, she's an appealing, sometimes touching guide to a world where luxury and devastation coexist; friends may be spies; a Cranach painting means less than the potatoes it buys; all kinds of refugees seek safety on the estate; relationships change; and safety, although not love, is illusory. Agent: Stephanie Cabot, the Gernert Agency. (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
“A frightening and wholly convincing evocation of life in Germany during the twilight of the Third Reich.” J. M. Coetzee
“I find this book exhilarating — truly exciting, new, everything good — the people, the clothes, the food: every word.” Joan Didion
“This is a deceptively simple novel that manages that uncanny trick of great fiction: turning the familiar (ambitious provincial girl, World War II, glamorous aristocrats) into a thrilling, enchanting story you’ve never encountered before. Imagine Downton Abbey crossed with In the Garden of Beasts as fashioned by a literary master at the peak of her powers.” Kurt Andersen, author of True Believers
“In The Life of Objects, Susanna Moore tells the story of a young woman’s initiation into the worlds of beauty, suffering, cynicism, and grace. What astounds me about this work is its ability to attend with equal fidelity to the quiet nuances of self-discovery and the deceptions and depravities of World War II. This is a lyrical and courageous book.” Tracy K. Smith, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry
“The Life of Objects isn’t long but it gives the full sweep of the Nazi reign and the Soviet occupation. Its details are so convincing, it reads like a memoir not a novel — a magnificent achievement.” Edmund White
“I hadn’t realized that the lives led by people in the camps had a shadow existence outside the fences, that people were constantly faced with the chance to step one way or the other so that the person next to them would be chosen instead, and that forever after they had to bear their choice. Treachery one wants to call it, but it isn’t so simple. Some of the details and evocations of the house and the landscape and the habits of the connoisseur and the self are so striking that at times I had the feeling I was reading a memoir, something like Edmund Gosse, where the writer is trying to keep his head among belligerent circumstances, or, on the other hand, fiction like Samuel Butler’s. The writing in places is close to a standard that is nearly flawless. So much can happen in a sentence, by such slight (to the reader) but rigorous and elegant means. I nearly gasped at some parts. And there is something gravely and humanly funny about others.” Alec Wilkinson, author of The Ice Balloon
“The Life of Objects is absolutely gripping in the precision of its wartime narrative, and chilling in its evocation of a fidelity to the sensuality of this world in the face of the most deeply cynical of the world’s capacities. This extraordinary novel speaks to class, emigration and tragedy in our time as devastatingly as Buddenbrooks spoke to Thomas Mann’s own young century.” Susan Wheeler, winner of the Witter Bynner Prize for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts & Letters
“A marvelous book, devastating in its simplicity. It’s a beautifully controlled examination of a life stripped, like a body in wartime, of inessentials. I love the fact that kindness — though not sentimentality — turns out to be an essential. But for me the heart of the matter is Moore’s language: as strong as plainchant, and as beautiful.” Nicola Griffith, author of The Blue Place and Ammonite
An elegant, haunting new novel from the award-winning author of In the Cut
and The Whiteness of Bones
— set in Germany on the eve of World War II, the story of one woman's journey of self-discovery as a continent collapses into darkness.
Beatrice, a young Irish Protestant lace maker, finds herself at the center of a fairy tale: she is whisked away from her humdrum life by a mysterious countess to join the Berlin household of the Metzenburgs, an enchanting, aristocratic couple whose vast holdings of art include a priceless collection of lace. But as Beatrice is introduced to the highly rarefied world of affluence and art collecting, the greater drama of Germany's aggression begins to overshadow it. Retreating with Beatrice to their country estate, the Metzenburgs do their best to ignore the encroaching war, until the realities of hunger and illness, as well as the even graver threats of Nazi terror, the deportation and murder of Jews, and hordes of refugees fleeing the advancing Red Army begin to threaten their very existence. While the Metzenburgs become the virtual lord and lady of a growing population of men and women in hiding, Beatrice, increasingly attached to the family and its unlikely wartime community, bears heartrending witness to the atrocities of the age.
About the Author
Susanna Moore is the author of the novels The Big Girls, One Last Look, In the Cut, Sleeping Beauties, The Whiteness of Bones, and My Old Sweetheart, and two books of nonfiction, Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai’i and I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawai’i. She lives in New York City.
Reading Group Guide
1. What contributes to Beatrice’s unhappiness and disaffection in Ballycarra? What does her devotion to novels and fairy tales show about the influence literature has on dreams and expectations? In what ways does her reading increase her isolation and estrangement from those around her? How do the heroines Beatrice admires (p. 5) and the specific works she refers to (pp. 21, 45, 47–48) help to create a sense of her character? What else do they add to Moore’s novel?
2. In addition to being her teacher, what role does Mr. Knox play in Beatrice’s life? What is the importance of his interest in bird-watching and making lists? In what ways do Mr. Knox’s habits and behavior anticipate the qualities Felix Metzenburg exhibits?
3. Why does Beatrice adopt the name of Maeve as she embarks on her adventure?
4. “Because her wealth served to isolate her, Frau Metzenburg did not trouble herself with the customary prejudices of her class. Herr Felix . . . was unusual in that neither money nor adoration had ruined him” (p. 40). How do Felix’s and Dorothea’s manners and demeanor differ, and how does this affect Beatrice’s feelings about each of them?
5. What do Inez’s description of Felix’s past and Beatrice’s observations of his daily activities establish about the changes occurring as the Nazis assume power? What hints are there of the injustices and cruelties to come?
6. What does the novel convey about the response of ordinary citizens to the extraordinary events occurring around them? Discuss, for example, Felix’s reaction to the invasion of Poland, the disappearance of his friends in Berlin, and the implementation of anti-Jewish laws; Fraulein Roeder’s “admiration of Hitler’s frequent speeches” (p. 51) and her insistence that “Frau Metzenburg’s great-grandmother had not been a Jew, despite the lies spread by the wicked (p. 54); Herr Elias’s revelation that he is Jewish; and Beatrice’s subsequent conversation with Casper about Jews (p. 53).
7. Beatrice says, “Part of [Dorothea’s] fascination, of course, was her secretiveness. She could not bear to be anticipated, or forestalled, taking great care to conceal a meaningless or innocent gesture” (p. 90). What information does Dorothea (or the author) withhold and why? Do the details about Dorothea’s background and marriage revealed later in the book cast a different light on her behavior and the things she values (pp. 134–38)?
8. Why do Felix and Dorothea remain in Germany despite Inez’s urging that they leave (p. 138)? Does hiding their treasures (and valuables given them by others) and the sheltering of refugees at their home represent a stubborn refusal to face reality, or can these be seen as acts of defiance—or hope?
9. At the Adlon Beatrice observes, “No one was who he appeared to be—it was too dangerous to be yourself, unless you were one of them, and perhaps even then” (p. 104). Does survival in wartime necessitate deception and self-deception? Does such intentional artifice undermine the moral foundations of a society? What effect, if any, does it have on an individual’s sense of self-respect?
10. Like the villagers in the novel, many Germans blamed the Jews for what was wrong in their country and dismissed reports that the Jews were being annihilated. Do you agree with Felix’s reflection that “By the time that we understand what is happening . . . we are already complicit” (p. 113). To what extent are Felix and Dorothea complicit in the madness that has engulfed Europe? Do their generosity and humanitarian efforts as the war progresses and the Red Army wreaks destruction on the countryside mitigate the blame and shame of their failure to act earlier?
11. What do Beatrice’s reports on actual events gathered from German, Swiss, and BBC news broadcasts, as well as the busy network of rumors, reveal about the often-blurry line between journalism and propaganda, fact and speculation? In this context, discuss the American choice to ignore for so long stories about the Reich’s systematic murder of Jews and other “objectionable” people (p.150).
12. How does the discovery of the American soldier in the woods change Beatrice’s sense of purpose and self-worth (pp. 159–75)? In the course of caring for him and listening to his stories, what does she realize about what was missing in her own life?
13. Only hours after she leaves the American, Beatrice is brutally raped by Red Army soldiers (pp. 179–80). Is the juxtaposition of these two incidents significant? In what ways do the encounters, one tender, one horrific, symbolize Beatrice’s coming-of-age?
14. At the end of the war, Beatrice says, she and others were “left with the inexhaustible presence of evil. . . . We had survived, but we were different people” (pp. 198–99). How does the legacy of the war and the new order in Germany shape the trials and the final tragedy Dorothea and Beatrice must deal with? What personal strengths and emotional needs underlie and nurture the intimacy between the two women? What signs are there that both women are ready to move on with their lives?
15. Several vividly drawn secondary characters enhance the intricacy of the portrait presented in The Life of Objects. What roles do Countess Inéz, Kreck, Herr Elias, Caspar, and Fraulein Roeder play in the novel and in Beatrice’s life? How does each character teach her something, or reveal something, that changes her understanding of the world?
16. Moore is a master at creating precise visual images--of clothing, household objects, and especially the rare items in the Metzenburg collections. In what ways do the finely wrought precision and vividness of these descriptions serve as a counterpoint to the dark themes Moore explores? Do they illuminate and explain the novel’s title?
17. How does The Life of Objects differ from other novels you have read about Europe during the Second World War? What effect does Moore’s choice of an uninformed young woman as narrator have on the power and credibility of the novel? In what ways does the book’s focus on a domestic drama deepen your understanding of the qualities, good and bad, that enable people to endure the atrocities of war?