I was very intrigued when presented with the opportunity to read Pictures of the Past, Deby Eisenberg’s recently published debut novel. On the surface it encompasses all of my particular interests in a book: history, romance, Impressionist art and, of course, Paris, but no more does the reader study the first pages than they realize that Pictures of the Past offers something even bigger: a striking understanding of the plight of Jewish families throughout the horrors of the Holocaust and a renewed appreciation for life in its greatest simplicity.
The novel takes us through generations of hardships, each unique to their era, beginning in modern-day Chicago where an Impressionist painting on display at the Art Institute, a treasure donated by celebrated philanthropist Taylor Woodmere, is charged as a Nazi theft. The claim takes us back to 1930s Paris, where the story of Taylor Woodmere truly begins. As he journeys to Europe on his first independent venture for the business of his forefathers we learn of the would-be fiancé he left behind, of his instantaneous connection with the city of Paris, of the Impressionist painting that captivates him and finally of his meeting with the German Sarah Berger. Their blissful romance is beautifully depicted amid the simple treasures of the German country whilst the shroud of the Nazi regime lingers threateningly in the background, inevitably proceeding to wreak havoc on Taylor and Sarah’s dream world. Together – and apart – they face the garish realities of an unjust war and Sarah takes a centric role in the center of her terrorizing quandary as a Jewish woman alone in a perilous place. Woven betwixt their tale is the story of Rachel Gold, a young girl left pregnant and abandoned by Taylor’s son, Court, in the 1960s. In her quest to secure a better life for herself and her son, Jason (aka Rusty), she travels from Chicago to New York where she pursues a life of normalcy with Aunt Ida, a Holocaust survivor and great friend. Through Ida’s connection to the life and times of Sarah Berger, and Rachel’s connection to the heroic Taylor Woodmere a bond is forged through the eras, weaving the history of one family and illuminating the tragedy of the Holocaust, a tragedy that still resonates through time and space to our world today.
Pictures of the Past is a truly remarkable creation that handles some immense topics with honesty, grace and aplomb. Deby Eisenberg combined an extensive knowledge of a particular history with truly memorable characters and a clear talent for writing, leading the reader to attest that no one else could have told the story of Taylor Woodmere, Sarah Berger, Rachel and Jason Gold and the beautiful Impressionist painting with any more polish or success. I was enthralled with Pictures of the Past, so much that I’m likely to revisit it in the future to experience the novel all over again.
Title: Pictures of the Past
Author: Deby Eisenberg
Genre: Drama, romance, historical
Publisher: Studio House Literary
Release date: August 28, 2011
Provided by: O’Connor PR (c/o)
Buy the book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | BetterWorldBooks
Connect with the author: Official Website | Blog
Authoress Deby was kind enough to grant me some time for a little Q&A; enjoy!
As the reader experiences the terrors of Nazi Germany through the story of Sarah Berger it becomes clear that a lot of effort went into the research of this history. What motivated you to pursue a novel set in this particular time of the world?
I love that you posed that question because it indicates that I have accomplished one main goal in writing the novel– that the reader could understand the terror by following and identifying with the story of one young woman. As a Jewish person, I have had a lifetime of exposure to the stories of our struggles during Hitler’s regime, but there is certainly a universality of the experience of oppressed people during times of war, and it is true throughout literature that from eras most deprived of morality, emerge a vault of stories so rich in substance that became my models. I actually developed into a avid reader after being impressed by writers such a Leon Uris, with Exodus and Mila 18, and Herman Wouk with War and Remembrance.
You may be surprised to know that my original premise for the story began as Rusty and Rachel’s story – a little boy with a strong memory of a painting and a mansion, but before I knew it, the story melded into the story of Taylor and Sarah. As a former high school English teacher, I have always valued the process of researching for a paper, and so I was naturally drawn to a story where I could incorporate research and first-hand knowledge from our travels.
A crucial piece of the story is the mystery of the Impressionist painting, one of two works by real-life French Impressionist Henri Lebasque that you created for the purpose of the story. Why did you choose the Impressionist movement – and Henri Lebasque, in particular – to help you depict the painting?
When I was choosing an artist for the painting, I wanted one that was a real Impressionist (yes, my favorite period – could you guess?), but not one that was extremely well known. Through some research I came upon Henri Lebasque – and then I made up a painting he could have done, as a true painting would have its own true provenance (by the way, my working title was Seeking Provenance). The rest was divine coincidence. When I decided to choose 1937 for the year when Taylor Woodmere could logically still go to Paris for business, it turned out that there was a World’s Fair there that year and that Lebasque was in the Fair. My original description of the painting was the second painting that Sarah saw in Berlin. On the great suggestion of editor Ann Patty, I changed the theme of the main painting to reflect the theme of the novel.
The novel highlights the lives of several intriguing characters, especially the empowering women such as Sarah Berger and Rachel Gold. Did you base any of the characters on women who’ve inspired you throughout your life?
Certainly when referring to inspiring women, Sarah is an embodiment of so many female heroes in the history of the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel.
Although I have always insisted that no one in the novel was based on anyone that I knew, just on characters that I could imagine and develop from my experience reading and researching (and living) that could be real – I did finally have to say – yes, there is a lot of me (or alternative universe me) in Rachel Gold and I never consciously set out to do that. I was a waitress for a few summers while my husband was in medical school. I did go to the University of Illinois for undergraduate work and always loved hanging around Northwestern near our hometown. (Eventually, I received my Masters from the University of Chicago, though). If I had a dream job – yes, it would have been writing for an architecture magazine – I love writing and mansions and Newport Rhode Island. So, I guess there is a lot of Deby in Rachel. Oh yes, one real person, real name – my Uncle Chal who did magic tricks when we visited him in Omaha.
You were partly inspired to write Pictures of the Past as a result of your position as the leader of a book club for many years. What do you think are the benefits of getting involved in a book club or book discussion group?
I believe there is a camaraderie of shared interests that is the substance of relationships, and so people flock to a book club for this reason. I do say this on my website, “They want to learn about people in contemporary times and in the context of history, but they also want to fall in love with a good story. When we are particularly challenged by the literature, I remind them that this is why we are in a book club. We want to expand our vision of the world and enhance our experience with language.” I have often said this line in introducing my book to Book Clubs and organization events –As a book club leader, I challenged myself to write a novel that my readers could not put down and would love to discuss. My greatest delight is that, perhaps, my mission was successful.
Your mission was most certainly successful! Pictures of the Past is truly an engaging and fascinating read…so now I have to pose the question: do you see yourself writing more novels in the future?
Absolutely. In fact, I already have written the first chapters of what may be my next novel, but the post-publication process for Pictures of the Past is very time consuming. I do look forward, however, to immersing myself, once again, in my new little world over iced tea at Panera.
Thanks again, Deby, for your time, your insight and for providing us bookworms with such a stellar novel!
Note: I originally published this content on The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower. It has been reproduced here for continuity of review-writing history.