Every treasured object holds within it a trove of memories: tokens imbued with meaning each time they are lost and found, inherited and gifted, collected and sold. Like family heirlooms, these articles tell the stories of their current and previous owners and become the souvenirs of their lives. Ayelet Waldman’s latest novel Love and Treasure (Knopf) centers on one such item: a shimmering peacock pendant pilfered from the notorious Hungarian Gold Train by a lovelorn American army lieutenant. In an expansive, multi-part narrative that telescopes seamlessly through time, Waldman traces the origins and fate of this necklace, intertwining tales of love and tragedy, war and art, rebellion and survival.
Introduced in the novel’s prelude is protagonist Jack Wiseman, now an aged WWII veteran dying of pancreatic cancer. In his granddaughter’s hands he places a mysterious gemstone-encrusted pendant, the owner of which he says is unknown. He confesess that the necklace is stolen and begs Natalie to find a way to return it to its rightful heir. The dying wish sets in motion an epic international treasure hunt that weaves together a slew of historical events and eclectic characters with unlikely connections.
Waldman’s expansive novel is divided into three distinct narratives, separated by time, place, and generation. The first is set against the grim backdrop of a ravaged postwar Salzburg between 1945 and 1946 where we learn that the peacock pendant is one of thousands of personal effects confiscated from Hungary’s Jews during the war and piled high in the boxcars of a freight train headed for Germany. When the Allies intercept the Hungarian Gold Train and seize its contents, it is young Jack, a multilingual U.S. Army lieutenant, who is charged with guarding the loot, protecting it from enemy thieves and the avarice of his own fellow officers. Though not devout, Jack is Jewish and thus feels an added protectiveness over the purloined treasures as well as the ailing refugees that inhabit the nearby camp. His sense of responsibility is only made stronger and more complicated when he falls for the tragically beautiful, fiery Ilona, a headstrong Holocaust survivor, and the two embark upon a charmingly naïve, but tragic romance. Throughout we watch as Jack grapples with dueling loyalties, a conflicted conscience, and a frayed sense of Jewish identity.
The second segment of the novel, set in present-day Budapest, traces the journey of the pendant in the hands of Jack's granddaughter Natalie. Determined to fulfill her grandfather’s impossible wish, Natalie enlists the aid of Amitai Shasho, a suave but seedy Israeli-born art dealer with a complicated past of his own. The two embark on an epic pilgrimage that takes them from Budapest to Oradea along a trail of tangled clues that, when pieced together, craft a wild history of headstrong suffragists, poem-wielding revolutionaries, and vaudevillian dwarves. In a rewind to 1913 Budapest, this history is brought vividly to life in the novel's third segment where the peacock pendant's original owners are finally unveiled.
Waldman saved her very best storytelling for last. Written as the detailed psychological case studies of Jewish psychologist Dr. Zeblo, this final section — and the only one in first-person — is the most captivating and skillfully crafted. As Waldman parodies the voice of the Freudian doctor and his psychoanalytic musings about 19-year-old Nina Schillinger, her writing takes on a new confidence, losing its previous sentimentality, and replacing it with a playful wit. This final narrative delivers an entertaining and telling portrait of Central European Jewish bourgeoisie, exposing its pageantries, hypocrisies, and misogynist tendencies juxtaposed with the defiant Nina, an intellectual feminist who wishes to abandon her parents' and society's expectations of marriage and motherhood to study medicine and champion women's right to vote.
Waldman's expertly drawn characters struggle through challenges both universal specific to their Jewish identites. None of them are sinless victims or infallible heroes, and even her villains are multi-dimensional, each faced with the moral and political dilemmas of a pre- and postwar Jewish identity. It is through the moral complexities of these characters that Waldmdan is able to provide thoughtful exploration of several difficult, yet compelling issues — from the appalling conditions of the postwar refugee camps to the ghastly exploitation of Hungarian refugees as tools of propaganda for the Zionist cause; from the physical and psychological homelessness faced by Jewish Holocaust survivors in postwar Europe to the crippling constraints Jewish families placed on young women in the early 20th century.
It takes impressively clever craft to propel readers through such an ambitious chunk of history, and while at times the narrative may seem overwrought with historic detail or clotted with episodes that drag on a bit too long, Waldman ultimately succeeds, by way of not one, but three richly detailed narratives. Love and Treasure is a riveting story of love, loss, guilt, and redemption. Its three disparate tales, knit together through the legacy of one cherished pendant, show how history can connect us in unexpected ways and demonstrate that the value of treasure is not in its monetary worth, but instead in the incalculable worth it accrues through the people that encounter it and the memories it carries through time.