I won a copy of Lara’s Shadow from a GoodReads giveaway. The “First Reads” giveaways are built for authors who want to make sure people can read a review of the book when they first come out – they often give out first-edition copies to generate publicity for the book. Alan Fleishman sent me a book promptly, signed, with a note kindly asking for my feedback.
It’s hard to describe my reaction to this book. When I opened it, I read the back cover blurb and thought, “Oh, no – I thought I entered a contest for a history book, and I won a racy romance book.” I don’t even like innocent romance books, but racy romances are even worse – I have a good imagination. It would be awkward for me to sit in an author’s bedroom and eat popcorn while watching them have sex; it’s almost just as awkward to read their idea of good sex. My basic attitude toward writing sex is that it’s a bad idea. You don’t know what turns me on, writer. Don’t try.
But, you know, I know how to skim, and I know how to skip, and I did enter the contest. I also knew that the “about the book” blurb said the relationship would become much more love than sex. So I gave it a shot. For about a hundred pages, I was still just giving it a shot. The main character was basically a mediocre, horny Jewish-American soldier with an obsession for one particular German woman and a general hatred of all Germans.
(To Fleishman’s credit, for those horny hundred pages, he kept this soldier’s comments or fantasies from getting graphic. I appreciated it.)
But then, he started to fall in love with the girl, and it got really good. Not because it was suddenly a great romance, but because it raised questions about guilt and hatred and racism and forgiveness and healing. And Fleishman handled all of those issues beautifully, with both devastating grief and fantastic optimism. He showed how a mediocre man who finds his strength from bitterness and spite can change into a wonderful man full of love, acceptance, forgiveness, and loyalty. I went from a “maybe I’ll give this 2 stars” to “good heavens, this is a fantastic book!”
And then the last section of the book crushed it. The couple broke up, stayed apart for 25 years, and the main character immediately regressed into a bitter, horny, mediocre guy again – this time, he just didn’t hate all Germans anymore. So he was a little less bitter. Then, after poisoning a marriage for 25 years, he finally pursued the German girl again, who has not-quite-but-kind-of picked up a lesbian partner, and some cussing and violent sex somehow just solves all their problems. I feel like he could have ended the book 60 pages earlier, and it would have been great.
I don’t know what to do with this. Fleishman writes his history immaculately, and his humanity beautifully. And he writes true love and forgiveness extremely well. And when he’s writing about true love and forgiveness, the sex becomes a part of that love and forgiveness. But every other time he brings sex into it, he cheapens his characters and loses my enchantment with the story. I would give the first part 2 stars, the middle part 5 stars, and the last part 1 star. Overall, I feel like I might be able to recommend Fleishman – but not Lara’s Shadow. ♦