Author: Alison Pick
Date Published: May 2011
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Genre: Historical Fiction; Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Publisher’s Book Summary: When Czechoslovakia relinquishes the Sudetenland to Hitler, the powerful influence of Nazi propaganda sweeps through towns and villages like a sinister vanguard of the Reich's advancing army. A fiercely patriotic secular Jew, Pavel Bauer is helpless to prevent his world from unraveling as first his government, then his business partners, then his neighbors turn their back on his affluent, once-beloved family. Only the Bauers' adoring governess, Marta, sticks by Pavel, his wife, Anneliese, and their little son, Pepik, bound by her deep affection for her employers and friends. But when Marta learns of their impending betrayal at the hands of her lover, Ernst, Pavel's best friend, she is paralyzed by her own fear of discovery—even as the endangered family for whom she cares so deeply struggles with the most difficult decision of their lives.
Interwoven with a present-day narrative that gradually reveals the fate of the Bauer family during and after the war, Far to Go is a riveting family epic, love story, and psychological drama.
My Thoughts: World War II, Hitler's Reign of Terror and the Nazi's attack on Jewish people has become a very popular topic with authors. Often the stories are sagas, spanning numerous years, a multitude of characters, issues and topics, their impact felt far and wide. Alison Pick, however, chose to write a small, intimate and personal story about one family living in Czechoslovakia, relating their experience amid Hitler's violent campaign in the late 1930s into the early ‘40s. The story is fiction but I wondered, while reading it, if there were any threads of truth. This possibility occurred to me when I opened the book one day and my eyes fell on a page before the story begins. The author has listed the names of people I believe to be her family members along with the years of their births and deaths. Some have the last name "Pick", some "Bauer", the name of the family in the story. All of the older people listed died in 1942 or 1943 which sent a shiver down my spine. I was very touched by this list as it made the story seem so much more real.
Far To Go is an engagingly written, captivating and poignant story. Incidentally, Ms. Pick is also a poet. As such, her writing is simple, elegant and magnetic. She draws you in with beautiful phrasing and her writing is rhythmic. I found it difficult to put the book down but at times, had trouble continuing because of the distressful, foreboding nature of the story.
The Bauer family, Pavel, Anneliese and their 5-year old son, Pepik as well as his nanny, Marta, are close, happy and loving when the book begins. But as the threat of Hitler and the Nazi's taking control of Czechoslovakia grows, fear and worry cause tension and bickering between Pavel and Anneliese. He’s adamant about remaining in Czechoslovakia, their home country, but she wants to flee. It's not long before Pepik no longer sings or laughs.
Dialogue is a substantial part of the story and the character’s conversations are realistic. Ms. Pick is adept at conveying each character's emotion through their words as they discuss the fate of Czechoslovakia and their own personal future. She also manages to communicate a lot of important information in the dialogue, but it never feels forced or artificial. This is just one aspect of Ms. Pick's gift for writing.
The majority of Far To Go is told from a third person (omniscient) point of view. If any character can be said to dominate the narrative, however, it's Marta, Pepik's nanny and the Bauer's maid. Only 22, she often seems much older, although she is naive and lives in denial of the Nazi‘s taking control. She's been with the Bauers for many years and loves them, though her actions, occasionally, belie this truth. Marta didn't have an easy childhood and it becomes apparent, early in the story, that she’s often insecure and unsure of herself. She's desperate to know that she’s loved by someone, anyone, but especially a man. Marta will do almost anything to make this a reality. She's immature and ignores things that upset her, pretending they never happened. We are privy to the many conversations and arguments Marta has with herself, enlightening us about her thoughts and motivations. Ms. Pick has created an amazingly complex and relatable character here, and I found myself sympathizing with her one second while wanting to shake her the next!
There is a lot of sadness in this novel but I don’t think anything is more heart-breaking than Pepik’s story. Though a secondary character, he is of great importance. Only five and six years old for much of the story, he is a happy, spoiled little boy doted on by three very loving adults. Pavel and Anneliese make the ultimate sacrifice for Pepik Ms. Pick successfully portrays the extreme difficulty of the decision his parents have in saving Pepik because it involves sending him away on his own. It’s a rare person who won’t shed tears at the vivid and memorable scene in the train station when Pavel questions his decision. Pepik is a realistic, three-dimensional child and his behavior seems like that of many children his age. He doesn’t understand what’s happening and displays the resiliency children are known for, making the best of his situation, hoping and expecting that soon things will change.
The book is divided into five sections, marking the significant aspects of the story as it progresses. Each section begins with a brief chapter from an unknown, at the time, first person narrator who, unlike the rest of the characters, lives in the present. This narrator is also related, in some way, to the Bauer family. This unknown person has done a lot of research on Czechoslavakia, Prague and Hitler. He/she is also sad, lonely and seems to be searching for someone or something. I found this part of the book awkward and a little bit confusing because it clashes with the narrative style and viewpoint of the majority of the chapters. Although I understood who the narrator was by the end, I would have liked this part of the story to be told in a last separate section, since a series of questions are raised by the small chapters, just as others are answered.
Apart from this inconsistency, the author manages to take a subject that lends itself to being told in bold strokes and over large swaths of time, the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, and writes a poignant, intimate family story. Ms. Pick doesn’t ignore the horrors of the Nazis as it’s always there in the background. But the focus is on the Bauer family and the people close to them whom, though not related, are still part of the dynamic and whose actions have far reaching impact for the family. Character development and plot are what drives this very well written, tightly packaged story that, if you can get past the occasionally jarring change of pace as discussed above, then you will be doing yourself a favor. It’s very much worth letting yourself get lost in this riveting drama about people of a universal nature in a time and place that is nearly impossible to imagine living through.
I received a copy of Far To Go from the publisher through TLC Book Tours