Martha Hall Kelly stumbled on the idea that would lead to her debut novel, Lilac Girls, when she decided to take a tour of the Bellamy-Ferriday house and garden in Bethlehem, Conn.
The historic home got the Bellamy part of its name from a reverend who gained fame through his role in the Great Awakening, America’s religious revival of the mid-18th century.
About 150 years later, the 100-acre farmstead was purchased by Manhattan socialites Henry and Eliza Ferriday, who, among other improvements, created an impressive garden that their daughter, Caroline, later filled with antique roses and specimen lilacs.
Kelly was lured by the lilacs but left inspired by something bigger.
In an author’s note at the end of the novel, Kelly explains how she saw that day a photograph of the Rabbits, a group of 74 Polish women whom Caroline raised money for in the aftermath of World War II. The women had been political prisoners at Ravensbrück, the only major Nazi concentration camp for women in Germany.
They’d been treated like lab animals in a series of beyond-cruel medical experiments. As the Alliance for Human Research Protection sums up on its website: “The experiments were designed to maim and cripple healthy human beings. Their leg bones were broken, pieces of bone extracted; nerves and muscles torn. To simulate battle injuries, the doctors sought to maximize infection by deliberately infecting the wounds using increasingly more potent bacteria cultures; rubbing the surgical wounds with bacteria, sawdust, rusty nails and slivers of glass.”
When Caroline heard about their plight, she used her social connections to bring many of the women to America, where they received much-needed medical attention and were treated to a host of restorative measures.
Long story short: Kelly began researching the story of Caroline and the Rabbits. She studied Caroline’s archives in Connecticut, Paris and Washington, D.C. She visited Poland and Germany. She began to write.
Lilac Girls focuses on three characters. Caroline’s story starts the novel and provides the main structure for the plot.
When the novel begins, former debutante and Broadway actress Caroline is firmly entrenched in her volunteer position at the French Consulate in Manhattan in 1939, heading up a charity called the French Families Fund.
Confidant, cool and well-connected, she seems to have it all — except a man in her life. That is until she meets Paul Rodierre, a handsome French actor. But he’s married, and then war breaks out, and life gets complicated.
The second character is Kasia, a Polish teenager who starts working for the resistance movement as Germany begins its invasion. Kasia ends up in Ravensbrück as a Rabbit, an experience almost too gruesome to comprehend.
And finally, there is Herta, a German doctor who accepts a job at Ravensbrück, which includes carrying out the medical experiments. Their stories slowly come together as time marches on and Caroline eventually heads to war-torn France to reconnect with Paul but ends up discovering so much more.
As a literary work, Lilac Girls is uneven. Caroline’s story is the most vividly told of the three, packed with details that take the reader smack-dab into upper-crust parties and old-money country homes where women casually carry Schiaparelli bags. Midtown Manhattan at mid-century comes alive.
Kasia’s story is the most gripping and disturbing, although as a character Kasia is not as well-developed as Caroline. The Herta story is the weakest of the three; while it made sense for Kelly to include her so readers could learn more about the Ravensbrück camp atrocities, her character is the least explored.
I also found it odd that the novel started with Caroline but ended with Kasia. If Caroline was the glue holding the novel together, I think it would have been more effective to end with her, too.
Unfortunately, her narrative had sort of petered out too soon.
But no matter. This is the sort of historical fiction-meets-quasi-romance novel that will have book clubs salivating, and for good reason: It’s a compelling, page-turning narrative that will also have readers, if they are like me, rushing to the Internet after the last page is read to learn more about the real-life situations and people who inspired the story, and eagerly seeking the answers to questions ranging from “How is it possible I never knew anything about the Rabbits before?” to “When do the Ferriday home and garden open for tours this spring?”
Lilac Girls falls squarely into the groundbreaking category of fiction that re-examines history from a fresh, female point of view. It’s smart, thoughtful and also just an old-fashioned good read.
☆☆☆☆ (out of 5)
- By Martha Hall Kelly
- Ballantine Books, $26
- Audio: Random House Audio, $45; narrated by the author, Cassandra Campbell, Kathleen Gati and Kathrin Kana.