The Women in the Castle

Author: Jessica Shattuck
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: May 2017


This was so disappointing. Historical fiction is my favourite genre and I was really expecting to like The Women in the Castle, but it was a letdown. Maybe I should have read the synopsis more closely, but I thought I was getting a historical novel about the July 20 assassination attempt on Hitler from the point of view of the wives/widows of the resistance. This is not what this book was about.

Marianne is hosting a party at the Burg Lingenfels castle on the evening of Kristallnacht. In their outrage about this event, the male aristocrats in attendance decide to form a resistance against Hitler and name Marianne the “commander of wives and children”. She thinks this is somewhat patronizing at first, but later when the plot fails, comes to see it as a term of honour and importance. I still think it’s patronizing.

After the party the story jumps forward 7 years to the end of the war as Marianne attempts to track down any widows of the resistance (the plot having failed and their husbands all having been executed). She saves young Benita, the bride of her childhood friend Connie, from a Russian whorehouse in Berlin and Ania and her 2 sons from a displaced persons camp. They all move into Burg Lingenfels and try to rebuild their lives and escape the ghosts of their pasts.

This is pretty much the extent of what we learn about the July 20 plot – the rest of the novel jumps back and forth between the present and the past (but never focusing on the assassination plot). The format did not work for me at all and neither did the writing style. Evidently a lot of people loved Shattuck’s writing, but I found it very lacklustre and slow. The constant back and forth in time and the changing points of view made the story feel very disjointed. Ania’s past takes up a large chunk in the middle of the novel which felt very awkward in the pacing and the entire last quarter of the novel takes place in the 90’s.

That said, Ania was the only redeeming character in this book for me. I was interested in learning about the July 20 plot, but when I realized I wasn’t getting that I was hoping for a book about Germany’s struggle to return to normalcy after the end of the war and come to terms with the horrific details that came out about Hitler’s death camps. How did Germans move forward after discovering the extent of Hitler’s evil (which was unknown to many until the liberation)? What about former Nazi’s – how did they move forward? We’re they ashamed of their complicity in the halocaust?

I do appreciate that Shattuck offered a few different viewpoints on this dilemma. I did really like Ania and enjoyed her section of the story and how she grappled with the decisions she made during (and after) the war. However, I thought Marianne was insufferable and too uncompromising in her morals and beliefs. I didn’t understand why she was so revered and I didn’t like how her story concluded. Benita was irrelevant to me and I did not enjoy her story at all. I wish we’d had more time to get to know Connie, since he was so important to two of the main characters, yet without knowing more about him, I couldn’t understand what either Marianne or Benita saw in him.

So unfortunately this one isn’t getting a high rating from me because I found neither the writing nor the plot compelling. It had promise, but it didn’t live up to the expectation for me. It seems well loved by a lot of other people though, so maybe still worth the read?

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