Today I am sharing my review for The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa: a WWII historical fiction that follows refugees set aboard the St. Louis, then later as they settle in Cuba.
Genre: Historical Fiction > WWII
Publisher: Atria Books
A stunningly ambitious and beautiful debut novel, perfect for fans of Sarah’s Key and All the Light We Cannot See, the story of a twelve-year-old girl’s harrowing experience fleeing Nazi-occupied Germany with her family and best friend, only to discover that the overseas asylum they had been promised is an illusion.
In 1939 before everything changed, Hannah Rosenthal lived a charmed life. Her family moved in Berlin’s highest social circles, admired by friends and neighbors. Eleven-year-old Hannah was often taken by her mother for an afternoon treat at the tea room of the beautiful Adlon Hotel, both dressed in their finest clothes. She spent her afternoons at the park with her best friend Leo Martin. But, in an instant, that sunlit world vanished. Now the streets of Berlin are draped with red, white, and black flags; their fine possessions are hauled away, and they are no longer welcome in the places that once felt like home. The two friends make a pact: come what may, they promise to have a future together.
As Hannah and Leo’s families desperately begin to search for a means of escape, a glimmer of hope appears when they discover the Saint Louis, a transatlantic liner that can give Jews safe passage to Cuba. After a frantic search to obtain visas, the Rosenthals and the Martins depart from Hamburg on the luxurious passenger liner bound for Havana. Life aboard the ship is a welcome respite from the gloom of Berlin—filled with masquerade balls, dancing, and exquisite meals every night.
As the passengers gain renewed hope for a bright future ahead, love between Hannah and Leo blossoms. But soon reports from the outside world began to filter in, and dark news overshadows the celebratory atmosphere on the ship; the governments of Cuba, the United States, and Canada are denying the passengers of the St. Louis admittance to their countries, forcing them to return to Europe as it descends into the Second World War. The ship that had seemed their salvation seems likely to become their death sentence.
After four days anchored at bay, only a handful of passengers are allowed to disembark onto Cuban soil, and Hannah and Leo must face the grim reality that they could be torn apart. Their future is unknown, and their only choice will have an impact in generations to come.
Decades later in New York City on her eleventh birthday, Anna Rosen receives a mysterious envelope from Hannah, a great-aunt she has never met but who raised her deceased father. In an attempt to piece together her father’s mysterious past, Anna and her mother travel to Havana to meet Hannah, who is turning eighty-seven years old. Hannah reveals old family ties, recounts her journey aboard the Saint Louis and, for the first time, reveals what happened to her father and Leo. Bringing together the pain of the past with the mysteries of the present, Hannah gives young Anna a sense of their shared histories, forever intertwining their lives, honoring those they loved and cruelly lost.
This is a historical fiction book where there are dual timelines happening: one starting off set in 1939 Germany and progresses through the years in Cuba, and the other set in 2014 New York. In this type of format in historical fiction, I generally do not care for the story line happening in the present, and often find it unnecessary to the story. This was not the case in The German Girl. I found Anna’s search to discover more about her late father’s family enhanced the story without taking anything away from the Hannah’s story happening in the past.
The cover & synopsis for The German Girl are a bit misleading. I was anticipating the majority of this book was going to take place on board the St. Louis, but in reality the bulk of this book takes place in Cuba. Also, the second half of this book progresses past WWII. While I would still consider this a WWII historical fiction, the book is more about the character’s lives in Cuba as a result of WWII. Surprisingly, I found the Cuba setting post-WWII very interesting. As time progresses, we even start touching upon the Cuban Revolution of the 70’s, where things seem to come full circle from WWII. I always appreciate WWII fiction that gives us a different setting & perspective than those set in Europe.
While the historical context & setting for The German Girl were on point, the cast of unlikable characters made this book a struggle for me. Hannah, our main character, was a big struggle for me from the beginning. There was something very off about Hannah and her odd morbidness…
I was almost twelve years old when I decided to kill my parents.
This is the sentence opener. While I love books that have a memorable opening line, it didn’t really fit the rest of the book. Later in the book there is a scene where Hannah is imagining a fellow passenger committing suicide in graphic detail. Hannah also imagines her parents killing her… I tried to keep in mind the context of these thoughts, but they just didn’t feel realistic coming from a 12-year-old little girl. Once Hannah reaches Cuba, her morbidity does tone done, but the time in Germany & aboard the St. Louis, I found it very jarring. Another character I struggled with was Hannah’s mother. She almost made the book unbearable. She was the epitome of selfish. When her cozy posh life is uprooted, she seemed to only care about her lifestyle being disrupted. There was a tiny part of the book where I thought she was going to redeem herself, but it didn’t last long. Once Hannah and her mother arrive in Cuba, she basically gives up on life and Hannah is left to forge her own way in the world. As a mother, I just couldn’t understand her actions. For me, the characters really brought down this story.
The true history behind the events in The German Girl is absolutely devastating: the fact that most of the 900+ passengers aboard the St. Louis did not survive WWII. The United States, Canada, and Cuba should all be ashamed. The sad part about all of this is that history has a tendency of repeating itself… I thought it was a wonderful touch for the author to include all the names of those aboard the St. Louis. It was a beautiful tribute to all those passengers that tragically lost their lives.
Overall The German Girl came up a bit short. The historical events and setting had all the makings of a fascinating look at WWII from a setting not often explored in WWII fiction, but the insufferable characters spoiled this one. I still think this book is a worthwhile read if only to learn more about the St. Louis and Cuba during and post-WWII.
Content/Trigger warnings: suicidal thoughts, depression, & suicide attempt
Armando Lucas Correa is a Cuban writer, journalist and editor who resides in New York. His first novel, The German Girl (Atria Books, Simon & Schuster), is an international bestseller that has been translated to fourteen languages and published in more than twenty countries. His second novel, The Daughter’s Tale (Atria Books, Simon & Schuster) will be published on May 7, 2019. His first bookIn Search of Emma: Two Fathers, One Daughter and the Dream of a Family (Rayo, Harper Collins) was published in 2009.
Correa is the recipient of various outstanding achievement awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the Society of Professional Journalism. Most recently, he was recognized by AT&T with The Humanity of Connection Award.
In Cuba, he entered the world of print journalism in 1988 when he was appointed the editor of Tablas, a national theater and dance magazine based out of Havana.
His career as an American journalist started in 1991 in El Nuevo Herald, The Miami HeraldSpanish edition newspaper. He moved to New York in 1997, to work as a senior writer at People en Español magazine and has been the brand’s Editor in Chief since 2007.
He is a graduate of The University of Arts in Cuba (Instituto Superior de Arte) and has a postgraduate degree in journalism from the University of Havana.
He currently resides in Manhattan with his partner and their three children.