Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France by Miranda Richmond Mouillot

As the amount of time since the end of World War II continues to grow, the people of the "greatest generation" are diminishing. As they disappear, their personal accounts of the war do as well. The magnitude of the war continues to surface, whether it be digging up an undetonated bomb 70 years later, or the recent publishing of A Fifty-Year Silence. Miranda Richmond Mouillot captures the story of her grandparents, Anna and Armand, and the psyche of these two people during their flee from Nazi-occupied France. Dodging Nazis. Coping with "survivor guilt." Solving the mystery of a fifty-year estrangement. Let's do this.

Title: A Fifty Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France
Author: Miranda Richmond Mouillot
Pages: 288 pages
Release Date: January 20, 2015
Publisher: Crown
Genre: Memoir; Biography
My Rating: 3.5/5

A young woman moves across an ocean to uncover the truth about her grandparents' mysterious estrangement and pieces together the extraordinary story of their wartime experiences.

In 1948, after surviving World War II by escaping Nazi-occupied France for refugee camps in Switzerland, the author's grandparents, Anna and Armand, bought an old stone house in a remote, picturesque village in the South of France. Five years later, Anna packed her bags and walked out on Armand, taking the typewriter and their children. Aside from one brief encounter, the two never saw or spoke to each other again, never remarried, and never revealed what had divided them forever.

A Fifty-Year Silence is the deeply involving account of Miranda Richmond Mouillot's journey to find out what happened between her grandmother, a physician, and her grandfather, an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials, who refused to utter his wife's name aloud after she left him. To discover the roots of their embittered and entrenched silence, Miranda abandons her plans for the future and moves to their stone house, now a crumbling ruin; immerses herself in letters, archival materials, and secondary sources; and teases stories out of her reticent, and declining, grandparents. As she reconstructs how Anna and Armand braved overwhelming odds and how the knowledge her grandfather acquired at Nuremberg destroyed their relationship, Miranda wrestles with the legacy of trauma, the burden of history, and the complexities of memory. She also finds herself learning how not only to survive but to thrive – making a home in the village and falling in love.

With warmth, humor, and rich, evocative details that bring her grandparents' outsize characters and their daily struggles vividly to life, A Fifty-Year Silence is a heartbreaking, uplifting love story spanning two continents and three generations.

Only within the last 20 pages or so, does Miranda question that the decline of her grandparents' relationship may have came about after the war, and not during. I thought this was obvious from the get-go. If Anna and Armand's relationship had soured during the war, why would they have stayed together for the remaining years afterwards and had children? They were both independent and resourceful. Armand was a dynamic man. Anna was a strong, successful woman. You would suppose that if something had gone so wrong during the war (resulting in a whopping 50-year silence), they would have called it quits immediately. They both seemed practical enough to do so.

It was no surprise that the Nuremberg Trials took a toll on Armand, who was hired as an interpreter for the nearly 11-month-long military tribunals. Why Miranda never considered the impact of the Trials on her grandparent's relationship in the first 90% of the book, I have no idea.

Which brings me to the biggest issue I had with this book. What type of book is this? Sometimes it read like a novel, sometimes a memoir, sometimes a how-to. Why do we need a lengthy paragraph on the step-by-step installation of a door in Miranda's house by her boyfriend? We don't. Nope. I wish Miranda would have left her personal love story out of it. I really didn't care. I didn't see any correlation between that and her grandparents and it was if she just wanted to throw her own fairytale into the mix because she could. Or for book filler.

I am going to make a guess: I think Miranda's research started off as an account of her grandparents' displacement throughout the war OR what it is like to live in provincial France. When those stories were kind of boring (sorry) she was like, "I'll focus on their mysterious breakup!" Because I'm sure no one has ever asked her grandparents why they separated in the first place. Please.

With all that was questionable about this memoir, the spunkiness of Miranda's grandparents made this book endearing. Miranda was able to capture the essence of these two people and give them such strong and distinct voices. "Intellectual understanding and brilliance in abstract notions had little or nothing to do with affection, empathic feelings, and consequently the need to respect others' aspirations and meet them." I mean, Anna's words of wisdom need to be printed onto posters and framed.

The essence of this book is that history isn't always wrapped up in a neat little package. It's random, unexplainable, and often unanswerable. While reminiscing on a visit to Notre Dame, Miranda explains how she "remembered touching the stone pillars in the nave and feeling a kind of electric ripple as I imagined the hands that had carved them. I knew my own hands were lingering in places those long-gone fingers had been. That, I thought, was history. Now I realized that the electric ripple that had so entranced me was not history but rather the gulf that separates the past from the present." Well said. Miranda can capture her thoughts and feelings in writing beautifully. 

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this honest review.

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