Sera James, a Manhattan art dealer, has been haunted for years by the piercing eyes of a holocaust victim's portrait. Her search for the painting of Adele Von Bron leads her to William Hanover, a wealthy Californian who is also searching for the elusive painting. By working together, they are able to piece together more of the story of this aristocratic violinist who was sentenced to Auschwitz for aiding Jews. But will they find the original portrait? And will Sera find the healing she is seeking?
Unlike most novels that are either contemporary or historical, this one juxtaposes the two: Sera's modern search for the mysterious painting, and the story behind the the painting - the story of Adele. The author does a good job balancing the two stories; Adele's story is the stronger focus, being so tied-in with Sera's, but I did not feel that Sera's story was neglected. Both Sera and Adele are developed well; though two completely different women, there are aspects of both to which one can relate.
One thing I love about historical novels is that so often the author writes about a fascinating bit of history we never learned about in school; in this case, it is the music and art of Auschwitz-Birkenau. There were actually orchestras comprised of prisoners at the death camps; the Nazis respected music, so those who had talent formed the orchestras that played music as the workers left and returned each day. Though the task could not have been pleasant, it kept many of them alive. Apparently, after the death camp was liberated, stashes of art were found throughout the camp - from poetry scrawled on walls to delicate watercolor paintings. In a place so full of death and darkness, where anything but the clothes on their back had to have been smuggled in or stolen, people still managed to create beautiful works of art.
I appreciated that Adele is not just living for the chance to see Vladimir (her love) again. While that love is important, it is more important that she love and live for her fellow musicians, her sisters in the holocaust. There is no way to know if Vladimir is even alive, whereas these women are her daily life, her family - even though most are Jews and she the daughter of the Austrian aristocracy. They are bound by their friendship amidst such unspeakable atrocities. It is right that her focus be on them rather than a long-lost romance.
I got a little little confused in the complexity of the legal dealings in the modern storyline and had to reread to clarify it, but otherwise it was an excellent novel. A moving story in both timelines, The Butterfly and the Violin offers a fresh look at the holocaust in a fresh style. I highly recommend it!
1. The Butterfly and the Violin
2. A Sparrow in Terezin