Love and war. They change everything.
Publisher: Mira (Harlequin)
First Published: 29th January 2013
Date Reviewed: 13th February 2013
Margot, a German Jew, has spent the war (WW1) living abroad with her father whilst he works at universities. She has a fiancé who went to war but when he returned wounded, Margot decided to stay with her father. She loves Stefan, but not enough, and feels trapped by the idea of marrying him. In Paris, where her father has moved to attend the conference for the treaty at Versailles, she meets Krysia, a woman very different to her who urges her to be her own person in this new world. But because of Krysia, Margot is found by Ignatz, and when Margot meets Georg Richwalder, from the German delegation, she is no longer able to live her life through her own choices.
The Ambassador’s Daughter is a book that looks at the confusion that came with the war and its end, the way the world changed, and the way that a person was able to remake themselves accordingly. Focused on the main character, the war provides the context and backdrop for Margot’s decisions, but it also allows Jenoff to look at the effects of war in general.
The only issue with these two topics being placed together – a historic war and the trials of a young woman – is that one was always going to be used less than the other, and while it’s not bad, per se, that Jenoff chose Margot, it does mean that there is space for further problems.
The main problem with The Ambassador’s Daughter is the main character. Whilst it is in no way necessary to have a character a reader can like, Margot’s constant worries, repetitious thoughts, and poor choices make her rather unrealistic. It is true a person might be indecisive and worry, especially in times of war, but the fact of the first person narrative makes the tale complex for the wrong reasons; if written in the third person Margot may have come across very differently.
The war being considered very little unfortunately makes Margot seem self-absorbed. She is often oblivious to what people have said, even when it is paramount, and does not see what is staring her in the face. When there is hope and a real chance, she pushes it away. The era was not good for women but her father’s support for her education, even if he wished to see her settled, would have made for a stronger sense of reason and fight, if not strength itself.
So the plot is confusing and there are many points that are not expanded. This does mirror, however, the confusion of war and thus makes it difficult to say with confidence that Margot is unreasonable. Her religion, her relative wealth, her father’s position in the world, would have in reality made for a tricky situation, especially when her mother’s death is included in that mix. It’s the fact that Margot never really saw the war that makes her self-absorption so difficult to accept.
Apart from Margot there are some very well developed and poignant characters. Georg, emotionally wounded but striving to stay strong, provides a brilliant contrast to Margot’s indecision; Stefan, for all his misplaced loyalty, is understandable and if anything this makes Margot’s choices worse. Her father is a different story. Revelations in the book may make the reader’s feelings for him change, or at least create a reason for reassessment.
The book is full of lies; lies between the characters, lies towards the reader, indeed it could almost be said that the theme of the book is lies. By themselves they may be considered too numerous. When looked at generally, these are actually clever devices, drawing everything together in their deception and showing that the war might be over but nothing will ever be the same.
There are some plot points that may be considered too convenient. Jenoff deals with the result well, and in fact in at least one place there is a great show of not using it to get to an easy situation, however it does still detract from the book.
Whilst the writing is, overall, rather good, there are a number of Americanisms that do not fit. Margot uses terms such as “gotten” and “fall” (as in autumn). Considering she has spent years in England and never speaks of America except when referring to another’s discussion, the terms are out of place. There is also the matter of research and the usage of objects not yet invented.
However for all this, The Ambassador’s Daughter is not all bad. The romance is lovely, if spoiled by Margot’s indecision, and the focus on Germans is interesting. Looking at the Treaty of Versailles from the point of view of the everyday German provides much food for thought, and learning about the aftermath for the common person is interesting in general. The characterisation of Georg is so fantastic it could keep the book going even if Jenoff had everyone suddenly break into song.
The exploration of change after war, the way people were practically forced to change, is wonderful. The varying nature of the characters and the different ways they cope or choose to move on provides plenty of food for thought. And whilst it is difficult to write off Margot’s anxiety with this statement, Jenoff never gives the reader any need to feel that they must like the narrator.
The detailing may be misplaced and interesting threads lost to oblivion, but there is much to take away from this book. It will not suit everyone; it will likely divide opinion and cause contention for its structure and lack of adherence to history, but it is far from bad. The Ambassador’s Daughter has many flaws, but the ideas it imparts are appealing.
I received this book for review from ED Public Relations.
February 18, 2013, 11:39 pm
The worst thing about minor errors (like the Americanisms, or minor errors in fact) in fiction is that I don’t know that many things? So I always think that if the author made mistakes I noticed, there must be dozens and dozens more mistakes that I’ll never notice! And then I get all antsy and anxious and can’t stop thinking about what might be Wrong. :p
February 19, 2013, 6:07 am
Well, I usually enjoy very much with books set in the wars, but I have also found some of them that are not well developed, and I think this is one of them.
I think that I wouldn’t undestand the main character, as you say she is always undecided, and well, the reader wants more from the characters of the stories, right?
February 21, 2013, 8:12 pm
Jenny: Yes! I’m always thinking that too. It does make you think twice.
Isi: The character can be difficult to understand, yes, because of her privileged position. I think it’s great that the war is looked at from so many different angles but it is also a tricky topic to take on and there’s definitely a certain responsibility to writing about it.