Book Reviews/Discussions

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

This has been sitting on my to be read pile for quite a while.  I originally received it as an e-galley, but decided to wait and buy it because I enjoy books more when they are in physical format.  I could tell this one would be one that would require some time and attention.

First, it is a beautifully written book. The pacing is slow, but not too slow, and as with many books I have read recently, time is fluid.  The reader floats between different events in the main characters’ lives, sometimes doubling back to see something from a different perspective/point of view. So, the first thing I would advise readers to do is to be prepared to savor this one.  It isn’t a beach read, but it also isn’t Proust. It fits quite nicely somewhere between. 

The novel opens at a party in the German hinterland in 1938. This party guests include a few Nazi sympathizers, but they are mostly intelligentsia, not fans of Hitler or his methods. From here, the reader sees in glimpses, the horrors of the war writ small. On everyday Germans, Poles, French, Jews, Russians–disaster is visited.  At the core of the novel are a group of mostly German resisters–they plotted to assassinate Hitler, but failed. After the men are executed, the women are left and Mariane von Lingenfels has promised to care for them and the children. She proves up to the task, but it is not easy.  There are so many secrets, so many ways people have been hurt and twisted by the war, that survival itself is heroic. Survival with a sense of human dignity and recognition of the humanity of others is even more heroic. 

Shattuck’s characters are finely drawn, even the children.  The reader feels the pain, humiliation, even the hunger portrayed, but Shattuck never goes for the cheap Nazi caricatures that so many other writers have left us with. The reader never gets all the details, and while that may be unsatisfying to some, it adds to the depth–just like real people are never presented to us as completely revealed, neither are these fictional characters. This is a character driven book, those looking for a plot will need to look elsewhere.  However, if you enjoy a beautiful story of struggle and hope, this one will suit you just fine.

Discussion Questions for your Reading Group:

  1. At the beginning when Mariane is first “assigned” to care for the women and children of the plotters, she feels it is a lesser task, but by the end, she has changed her mind.  How do you view this assignment?
  2. Which of the three main women–Mariane, Benita, or Ania do you most identify with and why?
  3. Mariane doesn’t want Herr Muller to come to the castle and she actively thwarts his relationship with Benita.  Do you agree with her assessment? What would you have done in her place?
  4. We often read novels where the protagonists succeed in their rebellion, or pull off an impossible mission.  How does The Women in the Castle differ from these types of novels?
  5. What do you think about the final fate of the castle?  How does this relate to Mariane’s mission to care for the women and children?