Morning Book Break and Book Discussion Groups on
The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
The Books and Bagels Book Discussion group members rated the book between a 4.0 and 4.5 with one member giving the book a 3.5 and another member rating the book at 3.75. The average of the ratings was 4.13.
The Morning Book Break Book Discussion group rated the book between a 4.0 and 5.0, with one member giving the book a 3.0 and one member giving the book a 3.5. The average of the ratings was 4.10.
Most members found the novel to be well-written and enlightening. Members liked learning about Germany in the aftermath of World War II. Members felt the book shed light on how difficult it is to rebuild after a war. Many members gained new insights into the complexities of life that many ordinary Germans experienced. Members somewhat sympathized with decisions made by ordinary Germans living in dangerous, unsettling times. The groups discussed how difficult it is to make decisions without prior knowledge of consequences farther down the road. Members enjoyed Shattuck’s ability to make the reader really care about these flawed women. One member thought that she had her mind made up about the three women, only to change her opinion at the end—the member gives Shattuck credit for creating well-drawn characters.
Many members liked the novel more than they thought they would. They enjoyed learning new information about life for ordinary Germans during this period of time and they thought the author did an excellent job of painting humanity with a gray brush.
Several members found the structure of the novel confusing. They found it hard to keep track of the characters and the time-line. The story is not told in a linear format—the author moves around in time with the characters. The facilitator felt Jessica Shattuck did a wonderful job with the format—she created a nonlinear novel that grabs the reader’s attention. Several members did however, like that the book had a beginning, middle, and end.
Additionally, several members were confused by the novel’s geographical shifts; they found this difficult to track—this could have been mitigated by having access to the map included in Jessica Shattuck’s website—they wish the map had been included in the book.
Some members found it difficult to understand how Ania obtained a new identity. This was only covered in a cursory way in one paragraph on page 269 (paperback version).
Several members were unable to finish the book; the novel brought back too many difficult memories and horrors of the war. These members bravely attended book discussion and still brought their experiences and insights which were helpful and inspiring.
According to Jessica Shattuck the novel is as much about “complicity as it is about resistance. It is a story set at the edges of the Holocaust, rather than at its darkest center—in the gray area of everyday lives. It is also a book about the period after the war rather than the war itself, a time when guilt of having supported Hitler—of having been complicit in the Holocaust—was driven underground and inward. And this private space of the subconscious and repressed has always been the province of novels.”
Jessica Shattuck attempted to answer the following questions from three characters’ points of view: “How did the forces of the time shape the everyday moments of people’s lives? How much did “ordinary Germans” know of what was happening in concentration camps and small Polish villages? How did some people recognize evil as it unfolded while others remained blind?” Members believe Shattuck answered these questions through the three characters’ circumstances and choices—which was a remarkable feat. Members thought Jessica Shattuck achieved her goal by offering readers a different glimpse at life for Germans from 1938-1991.
The book posits the following questions: What would I do in similar circumstances? How do I stand up for injustices today? After reading The Women in the Castle, the answers are not as black and white as one might think.
Members have read other novels about Nazi Germany which they felt had insights, like The Lilac Girls, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and Sarah’s Key. In contrast, members felt The Women in the Castle offered new insights that these other novels did not. In other words, The Women in the Castle covered new ground. Only one member had read a nonfiction book which addressed this period of time in a similar way. The member highly recommended this book, Two Lives: A Memoir by Vikram Seth. “Widely acclaimed as one of the world’s greatest living writers, Vikram Seth — author of the international bestseller A Suitable Boy — tells the heartrending true story of a friendship, a marriage, and a century. Weaving together the strands of two extraordinary lives — Shanti Behari Seth, an immigrant from India who came to Berlin to study in the 1930s, and Helga Gerda Caro, the young German Jewish woman he befriended and later married — Two Lives is both a history of a violent era seen through the eyes of two survivors and an intimate, unforgettable portrait of a complex, abiding love.”—from Amazon
- The groups discussed ways they related to the three main characters and discussed which character they identified with the most. Members talked about how each woman’s past influenced their decisions during the rise of Nazi Germany. We discussed whether the women would have been friends if not for the war and how the events of the war shaped each of the women and their perceptions of themselves.
- The groups discussed whether Marianne was a good protector and friend to Benita and Ania. We discussed how Marianne may have reacted if Ania and Benita had been more honest with her.
- The groups discussed whether Benita’s beauty helped or hurt her and we discussed her true feelings for both Connie and Franz Muller. We discussed Benita’s final choice and the implications for her son, Martin.
- The groups discussed whether Ania was like most ordinary Germans of the period.
- At the end of the war, each woman was in a different place emotionally. We discussed the choices they made to survive and whether it’s possible for anyone to put the past behind and create a new beginning. We discussed whether we felt the women were victims or whether they had responsibility for Hitler’s rise to power and therefore responsibility for their own plights. We also discussed whether people are accountable for the actions of their leaders.
- The groups were asked whether they learned anything new about the conditions in post-war Germany.
- Finally, the groups responded to the following statement by Martin, “Americans can face the world with open arms, Marianne had once said, because the world hasn’t yet come to knock it down.” Additionally, the groups were asked if The Women in the Castle holds any insights for our own time.
Jessica Shattuck’s website includes a YouTube clip which is essential to understanding the personal nature of this novel for the author. The website also contains book discussion questions and an extremely helpful map with sound bites about The Castle, Displaced Persons Camps, POW Camps, Rheinwienlager (US army camps built to hold German soldiers) and the Landjahr Lager (country service camp).
If you decide to read The Women in the Castle, please be aware that the paperback copy has an additional chapter which further explains Ania’s identity—some members found this very useful. The facilitator agrees with the editor’s choice to remove this chapter from the original manuscript. While this additional chapter is interesting and descriptive, it does not provide for a seamless storyline and creates additional questions which remain unanswered in the rest of the text. The facilitator said, “The additional chapter is like having an antique hammer in a sock drawer, while interesting, it is a misfit in the sock drawer.”
Book club members also expressed that the relationship between Martin and Mary in 1991 should have been edited out of the novel—it was out of place with the rest of the novel according to the members.
The paperback includes a fascinating and helpful Author’s Note. The facilitator highly recommends reading the Author’s Note after completing the novel.
Tie-In DVDs in RML’s collection
Book Club 2016-2017 Season Wrap-Up:
Members praised the facilitator for providing a stellar selection of diverse books this season. Members appreciate the selections as the books offered topics rich for discussion. Members thoroughly enjoy attending discussion days and while many would not have pick-up these reads on their own, they were so thankful to be stretched intellectually by reading other genres. Last season (2016-2017) there was several least favorite reads, but this season all the selections were enjoyed by the members.
Several Morning Book Break members were only slightly disappointed with Beartown as they were hopeful it would have been as heartwarming and touching as A Man Called Ove. Many members stated that it was hard to pick a favorite read of the season, as the books on the list were all well-liked. Some of favorites for this season were: A Gentleman in Moscow, The Rosie Project, Before We Were Yours, News of the World, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, and Small Great Things—almost the entire selection were book club favorites!
Finally, members were asked to cast a vote on which of the two novels they would most like to read for the upcoming season. The novels were: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn. The Books and Bagels Book Club voted for the The Alchemist and The Morning Book Break Book Club voted for The Woman in the Window.
Members are sorry to see the season come to a close and they can’t wait until September for the first discussion of the 2018-2019 Season. A few members feel like they are going to go into Book Club Withdrawal! If you’re interested in attending, stop by the Readers’ Advisory Desk for the 2018-2019 Flyer, which will be available in mid-July, and sign-up with a Readers’ Advisor. If you’re already signed up, check out the blog page for September’s title!