World War II has inspired dozens of unforgettable novels, but Jessica Shattuck offers a mesmerizing new look at the aftermath of the war in The Women in the Castle (William Morrow, 356 pp., ***½ out of four stars).
The fictional Marianne von Lingenfels is a widow of the German Resistance. After failing to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944, her husband Albrecht and his friend Martin Constantine Fledermann (known as Connie) are hanged; their deaths, the result of a real-life plot against the Fuhrer, set the novel’s events in motion.
As Germany is slowly wrested from the Nazis’ grip, the formidable Marianne pries Connie’s toddler son from a cruel German orphanage and rescues Connie’s comely young widow, Benita, from an occupying Russian soldier who holds her captive.
An American soldier alerts Marianne to another widow, Ania, just freed with her sons from a camp for displaced persons. The women make a home for their fatherless boys in the castle Marianne inherited from Albrecht that once hosted Germany’s finest.
In vivid flashbacks, Shattuck reveals the wartime anguish all three women endured. But peacetime has its own tortures, as neighbors who were once Nazis make an uneasy return to post-war life.
Stoic, hard-working Ania is the most compelling of the three women. Her sullen sons are hard workers but cast a troubling pall on the castle. Benita, who wed and was widowed young, soon connects with a German prisoner who has been released to help Marianne maintain the castle grounds. But the self-righteous, manipulative Marianne is horrified that Benita — widow of a Resistance hero — could be attracted to Herr Muller, who, like many Germans, was a Nazi.
Marianne’s strength and resilience get her through the war and its brutal aftermath, but her narrow-mindedness has harsh consequences for…