Book Reviews

Wunderland by Jennifer Cody Epstein


Friends Ilse von Fischer and Renate Bauer are schoolgirls living in Berlin as the Nazis rise to power. Swept away with patriotic fervor, Ilse joins the Hitler Youth Movement and encourages Renate to so the same—never suspecting it will lead to the destruction of their friendship and set a devastating betrayal in motion that will have repercussions on Ilse’s relationship with her daughter years later.

Wunderland instantly appealed to me for two reasons. The first reason is that I enjoy reading  perspectives from multiple characters, and this story is told through the eyes of Ilse, Renate, and Ava. The second—and equally compelling—reason is that I enjoy reading novels set during this era, particularly when it explores the struggles of Jewish people as the Nazi regime took hold.

The events that take place in early Nazi Germany is the driving force of the story, and a good-sized portion of the book focuses on that time period and it told from Ilse and Renate’s points of view. Ava’s past story reflects on the difficult relationship she has with Ilse throughout the years as a result of her reticence to discuss anything having to do with the war or Ava’s father.

What made this book unique, for me, is the way it shows how both Ilse and Renate fell under the spell of Hitler’s demagoguery and accepted Nazi ideals as something good and just. It was chilling to see how easily offhand comments denigrating Jewish people led to violence, and how casually it was accepted, for the most part, by one of the girls.

A pivotal event happened in the latter part of the book that ultimately defined the lives of all three women. It drastically changed my feelings about one of the characters, and forced me to consider everything I’d previously read about her in a whole new light. It didn’t redeem her actions, but it certainly made her a more sympathetic character in the end.

Final Thoughts

Wunderland is a haunting tale, impossible to put down even in its most disturbing moments. The characters are gloriously imperfect, compelling despite their flaws, and feel completely authentic throughout. Epstein’s writing is pitch perfect, steadily building a story that brings the reader to a crescendo of emotion.

I highly recommend this book to readers who enjoy reading historical fiction!

I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Crown Publishing Group.

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Author: Jennifer Cody Epstein
Title: Wunderland
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: April 23, 2019 by Crown Publishing Group
Rating: 5 stars

About the Book

East Village, 1989
Things had never been easy between Ava Fisher and her estranged mother Ilse. Too many questions hovered between them: Who was Ava’s father? Where had Ilse been during the war? Why had she left her only child in a German orphanage during the war’s final months? But now Ilse’s ashes have arrived from Germany, and with them, a trove of unsent letters addressed to someone else unknown to Ava: Renate Bauer, a childhood friend. As her mother’s letters unfurl a dark past, Ava spirals deep into the shocking history of a woman she never truly knew.

Berlin, 1933
As the Nazi party tightens its grip on the city, Ilse and Renate find their friendship under siege–and Ilse’s increasing involvement in the Hitler Youth movement leaves them on opposing sides of the gathering storm. Then the Nuremburg Laws force Renate to confront a long-buried past, and a catastrophic betrayal is set in motion…

An unflinching exploration of Nazi Germany and its legacy, Wunderland is a at once a powerful portrait of an unspeakable crime history and a page-turning contemplation of womanhood, wartime, and just how far we might go in order to belong.

About the Author

JENNIFER CODY EPSTEIN is the author of the forthcoming Wunderland, out April 23 with Crown Publishing. Her prior works include The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, winner of the 2014 Asian Pacific Association of Librarians Honor award for outstanding fiction, as well as the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai. She has also written for The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, The Nation (Thailand), Self and Mademoiselle magazines, and the NBC and HBO networks, working in Kyoto, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok as well as Washington D.C. and New York. She’s taught at Columbia University in New York and Doshisha University in Kyoto, and has an MFA from Columbia, a Masters of International Relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a BA in Asian Studies/English from Amherst College.

She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, filmmaker Michael Epstein, her two amazing daughters and an exceptionally needy Springer Spaniel.

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