Women in the Castle (Shattuck)

The Women in the Castle 
Jessica Shattuck, 2017
368 pp.

Three women, haunted by the past and the secrets they hold

Set at the end of World War II, in a crumbling Bavarian castle that once played host to all of German high society, a powerful and propulsive story of three widows whose lives and fates become intertwined—an affecting, shocking, and ultimately redemptive novel from the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Hazards of Good Breeding.

 Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once-grand castle of her husband’s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war.

The widow of a resister murdered in the failed July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.

First Marianne rescues six-year-old Martin, the son of her dearest childhood friend, from a Nazi reeducation home. Together, they make their way across the smoldering wreckage of their homeland to Berlin, where Martin’s mother, the beautiful and naive Benita, has fallen into the hands of occupying Red Army soldiers.

Then she locates Ania, another resister’s wife, and her two boys, now refugees languishing in one of the many camps that house the millions displaced by the war.

As Marianne assembles this makeshift family from the ruins of her husband’s resistance movement, she is certain their shared pain and circumstances will hold them together. But she quickly discovers that the black-and-white, highly principled world of her privileged past has become infinitely more complicated, filled with secrets and dark passions that threaten to tear them apart.

Eventually, all three women must come to terms with the choices that have defined their lives before, during, and after the war—each with their own unique share of challenges.

Written with the devastating emotional power of The Nightingale, Sarah’s Key, and The Light Between Oceans, Jessica Shattuck’s evocative and utterly enthralling novel offers a fresh perspective on one of the most tumultuous periods in history.

Combining piercing social insight and vivid historical atmosphere, The Women in the Castle is a dramatic yet nuanced portrait of war and its repercussions that explores what it means to survive, love, and, ultimately, to forgive in the wake of unimaginable hardship. (From the publisher.)

Read the author's NY Times Op-Ed article.

Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1972
Where—Washington, D.C., USA
Education—B.A., Harvard University; M.F.A., Columbia University
Currently—lives in Brookline, Massachusetts

Jessica Shattuck is the award-winning author of The Hazards of Good Breeding (2003), which was a New York Times Notable Book and finalist for the PEN/Winship Award, and of Perfect Life (2009). Her third novel The Women in the Castle (2017), was inspired by her grandparents' experiences in Germany during World War II.

Shattuck's other writing has appeared in the New York Times, New Yorker, Glamour, Mother Jones, Wired, and The Believer, among other publications. A graduate of Harvard University, she received her MFA from Columbia University. She lives with her husband and three children in Brookline, Massachusetts. (Adapted from the publisher.)

Book Reviews
In her beautiful, perceptive novel, Jessica Shattuck does an about-face from other World War II books. Most of those books, if not all, focus on victims of the fascists or on those opposing them. In a daring move, Shattuck takes as her viewpoint the Germans themselves — those who are left standing (barely) after the fall of Berlin.  READ MORE.
Molly Lundquist - LitLovers

Shattuck’s characters represent the range of responses to fascism. Her achievement — beyond unfolding a plot that surprises and devastates — is in her subtle exploration of what a moral righteousness like Marianne’s looks like in the aftermath of war, when communities and lives must be rebuilt, together.
Mary Pols - New York Times Book Review

[A]n intricately woven narrative with frequent plot twists that will shock and please.…[and] a unique glimpse into what the average German was and was not aware of during World War II.… A beautiful story of survival, love, and forgiveness.
Publishers Weekly

There are too many ideas in this novel; as each emotional arc builds, the narrative abruptly switches to another character's voice, confusing the reader.… [R]eaders will have to triangulate numerous characters. —Tina Panik, Avon Free P.L., CT
Library Journal

(Starred review.)The reader is fully immersed in the experiences of these women, the choices they make, and the burdens they carry…a rich, potent, fluently written tale of endurance and survival.

[S]imple, stark lessons on personal responsibility and morality. Inevitably, it makes for a dark tale.… [The] novel seems atypical of current World War II fiction but makes sincere, evocative use of family history to explore complicity and the long arc of individual responses to a mass crime.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, please use our LitLovers talking points to start a discussion for THE WOMEN IN THE CASTLE … then take off on your own:

1. What does the novel reveal about the method and degree of Hitler's appeal to the German populace? In what way does it address the most problematic question of the War: how the German people allowed themselves to be swept away by Hitler and Nazi propaganda. Just as important, how much—and at what point—did ordinary citizens truly know about the impoundment and murder of Europe's Jewish population.

2. Describe each of the three women—Marianne, Ania, and Benita. Talk about their different views of the Hitler regime as it unfolded and their various reasons for supporting it. What was each woman's role, or position, in German society, and how did each experience the war? What about the years after the war?

3. (Follow-up to Question 2) Which woman's story do you find most compelling, frightening, or horrifying? Are you more sympathetic toward one than the other two?

4. Most of the recent books about World War II focus on the horrors of the holocaust, and for good reason. Yet ordinary Germans also suffered, especially as the war neared the end. What was it like for the country as Nazism collapsed? Consider the population at large, but most particularly the women at Burg Lingenfels. How are the three of them luckier than most survivors?

5. What roles do hope…denial…and forgiveness play in this novel? Is Jessica Shattuck's book an attempt to somehow exonerate the citizens who supported Hitler's rise to power?

6. Has reading The Women in the Castle, changed in any way your understanding of World War II?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution.)

The following Questions were generously contributed to LitLovers by REBECCA DIXON from the Baldwin Public Library in Baldwin, Wisconsin—many thanks, Rebecca:

7. Was Marianne right to interfere in Benita’s romance with Muller? Do you think that relationship would have saved her, or was it doomed by his feelings of guilt?

8. What about World War I helped cause World War II?

9. There was much debate about whether assassination was the right thing to do with Hitler.  How do you feel? Are you aware of the Bonhoeffer attempt?

10. How are America and American soldiers seen in the eyes of the characters?

11. Many characters in the story say they don’t believe in God or are not sure. How is our belief tested in times of war? How can we explain God’s actions or lack of them during the Holocaust?

12. Hitler is used as the definition of evil since. What other world situations have been compared to the Holocaust? Has there been anything as bad in your opinion? Do you see any situations today that cause concern?

13.  Can history repeat itself? What needs to be done to make sure there are no more Naziis?

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