Suite Française by Irène Némirovski
The reader gradually gets the details of how she was apprehended as a stateless person with Jewish grandparents, sent to a French camp and immediately on to Auschwitz where she was gassed. The correspondence continues between people trying to help the children, even after the father is also taken and gassed in Auschwitz. This level of detail is illuminating because it allows the reader to eavesdrop on one of millions of tragedies as it played out in the absence of the information we have now about the Holocaust.
The novel itself also interested me more than I expected. I've always found it frustrating to read unfinished last works (i.e, The Last Tycoon or The Mystery of Edwin Drood). Sure, they show the genius of an artist at the height of his or her powers, but not only is the novel not finished, but the texture of the novel has not been combed through by the author to tighten up the structure or to edit what needs fixing. And there's a certain frustration in not seeing the final product.
Némirovski's epic—she called it that and "Suite Française" was her title—was to consist of 5 parts of approximately 200 pages each. What exists now are the first two of those parts,"Storm in June" which is about various citizens leaving Paris in a panic in the wake of the Nazi advance in the summer of 1940. The second part, "Dolce", is a picture of a small French village in the occupied zone during the time that German soldiers are billeted with them. Némirovski's characters are a wide variety of social types. All are confused and bewildered by a country they feel betrayed them and most are blatantly out for themselves. From a wealthy Russian Jewish banking family who had nevertheless lived lived most of her adult life in France, Némirovski understood the French characters, but she had a certain distance from them which you see especially in this section. It's as if she were dissecting layers of society to expose the venal and the selfish and the self-deluded. It's sad and comic and absurd. One set of refugees, though, the Michauds, are much more likable characters as is their son, seen recovering from a war wound in a farmhouse. It's clear they'll play a larger part in the overall plot.
In "Dolce", Némirovski exquisitely categorizes the social strata of what would seem too small a village to have them, finding, not surprisingly, that those with more are the least willing to share and the most hypocritical about it. Reactions to the occupation—and to the young German soldiers in their midst—differ widely and Némirovski examines several characters and many aspects of village life in detail. At the end, I was just plain sad that the novel would never be finished and grateful for every tidbit of knowledge of the characters that the author's notes provided.