I recently finished the World War II drama Wunderland by Jennifer Cody Epstein. This was one of those books that I started and had to promise myself that I would not stay up until 12:30 am reading. I did not fulfill that promise to myself and finished it in 2 nights, it was that good.
Set in Berlin in the 1930’s, best friends Ilse and Renate, have spent their childhood together. They share secrets and make promises to each other to remain best friends forever. As the Nazi party continues to strengthen in Germany, they find that maintaining their precious friendship is going to be impossible. Renate’s family reveals a secret that will make it impossible for her to sustain her lifestyle, her social connections and education.
After introducing Ilse and Renate, the book jumps to 1980’s New York City and the reader is introduced to Ilse’s daughter Ava. Ava was born at the start of WWII and never knew who her father was and never knew why she was surrendered to an orphanage as a young child, only to be retreived by her mother years later. She spends her life begging her mother for answers, but receives nothing from Ilse. Finally, after years of estrangement from Ilse she receives a letter from Germany that includes the story of her mother’s life through a series of letters that her mother wrote over several decades to Renate. These letters explain to Ava why her mother was distant and cold during her childhood. It also explains the mystery of her father and those years in the orphanage. The answer is shocking.
I really liked this book for several reasons. I have read so many WWII books over the years. The events of 1940’s Europe provided endless material for historical fiction. Personally, I have always felt an obligation to read those stories so that I can understand why the holocaust happened and what drove millions of people to follow a madman blindly. In all honesty, I have been backing away from those books a little bit because they all seem to end in the same place, a death camp. While I know that was the story for millions of victims, it was not the story for all of Hitler’s victims. Make no mistake about it though, just because this story does not end in a death camp, that doesn’t make the outcome any less tragic. In the end, the brutality these families live through ends before they have to enter a death camp.
I realize that while this book was historical fiction, it also had the element of mystery and suspense. The big reveal is saved for the last few pages, which allowed the book to hold my attention until the very end. I kept asking myself, what is the secret? So many scenarios went through my mind, but honestly, I wasn’t prepared for the end. That is what makes a good story great!
I also appreciated that the author had the ability to make me really hate Ilse through almost the entire book. I mean, she is really portrayed as an awful woman. Her final letter allowed me to realize their was so much more to her. I can’t say I walked away feeling pity or sorry for her, or that I even liked her at the end. But, I ended the book understanding her a bit more.
I gave Wunderland 5 stars on Goodreads without hesitation.