by Jillian Cantor
Read: August 18 - 20, 2013
Published: September 3, 2013 by Riverhead Trade*
Source: ARC from publisher in exchange for an honest review
Category: Adult fiction, Alternate history, Margot Frank, Holocaust, 1950s America
NOTE: Margot is not a book that I ever imagined I would read, but it has become a very clear favorite of the year. I encourage you to not pass it by without taking a closer look.
In the spring of 1959, The Diary of Anne Frank has just come to the silver screen to great acclaim, and a young woman named Margie Franklin is working in Philadelphia as a secretary at a Jewish law firm. On the surface she lives a quiet life, but Margie has a secret: a life she once lived, a past and a religion she has denied, and a family and a country she left behind.
Margie Franklin is really Margot Frank, older sister of Anne, who did not die in Bergen-Belsen as reported, but who instead escaped the Nazis for America. But now, as her sister becomes a global icon, Margie’s carefully constructed American life begins to fall apart. A new relationship threatens to overtake the young love that sustained her during the war, and her past and present begin to collide. Margie is forced to come to terms with Margot, with the people she loved, and with a life swept up into the course of history. (From Goodreads)
"I have been hiding for so long that it has become all I am. And I realize I am not even truly certain why I am still hiding, except now it is all I know."**I knew nothing about the book Margot until I attended a Penguin event this spring, and met the lovely author Jillian Cantor. I remember her telling me about her book and thinking that it sounded like a fascinating and moving concept. But in my head, I was pretty sure that I'd never read it for myself. Mostly, because it seemed like an incredibly sad and depressing story, and I try to avoid those types of books. Plus, I wasn't sure how I would handle an alternate version of what really happened to Margot Frank. But then the publisher sent me a copy of the story, and I felt compelled to read it for myself. It took me a while to work up to starting Margot, but once I opened the first page I was drawn to Margie Franklin, the name that this version of Margot has chosen to hider herself behind. Margie's quiet, but clear voice, her life in America in the late 1950s and her struggle to reconcile who she was with who she is now, all combined to form a moving and surprisingly relevant story. Now after reading Cantor's beautiful book, I am nothing but thankful that I've been given a chance to read it.
I love stories that look at lesser known characters in well known historical events. Everyone knows who Anne Frank is, and many have read her words or seen her story on the screen. But little is known about her studious sister, Margot, who also hid for two years in the annex, wrote a diary and was captured and sent to Auschwitz along with the rest of her family. What I love so much about the story of Margot Frank turned Margie Franklin, is how well it captures the spirit of the girl who seems perpetually in Anne's shadow. In many ways, Margot is a quiet book, but that is what is brilliant about it. Margot pays homage to Otto Frank's eldest daughter in a way that is respectful and honest. Cantor carefully draws Margot out from the background of her sister's story, and into the forefront of her own. I think that is the beauty of this tale, the way that it reminds us that Margot was a real person too.
Margot is set in front of a backdrop of working America in the 1950s, when men wore suits, girls wore dresses, and everyone smoked in the office. But despite the cool mid-century vibe to the story, on the outside, Margie Franklin's life doesn't seem all that different from that of a single person today. She works hard as a secretary for a law firm, goes out for drinks with her friends, and sometimes leaves work early when her boss is away. But Margie also wears sweaters and long sleeves all seasons of the year, not for modesty sake, but to hide the numbers on her arm. After spending her life hiding who she is, Margie does not know how to do anything else. That's the second aspect of this book that is so powerful. It is a reminder that when the war ended - when any war or psychological trauma stops - the individual consequences don't disappear.
Margot is not a loud book, and that is a blessing in many ways, because it forces you to pay attention to the details in the story, and especially to Margot herself. I was surprised by how incredibly real and complex she became to me. How carefully Cantor crafted her. Margot speaks and thinks clearly and articulately, because she learned English as a second language, and has practiced hours to cultivate it. It is a part of her facade as Margie, but it is also a true detail of the girl she had once been, who was always focused on her studies and learned languages and subjects hiding in the annex. Present day Margot struggles with guilt about her past, especially in her relationship with Anne and her actions following their capture. But conversely, she has an incredible amount of grace for the Americans around her, who have no idea what the war was like for a Jewish girl raised in Europe, and are constantly making careless statements.
But most of all, Margot's instinct to protect herself and keep her past hidden are in conflict with her desire to be known and loved as she is. Margot the Jew believes that her life will be simpler, less complicated and safer as Margie the Gentile. But what is she sacrificing by denying who she is? And what happens when her life is projected on the big screen in her sister's movie, and she is confronted by her own past?
The tragedy and the wonder of Margot is that we know she did die in a concentration camp in 1945. But if she hadn't, this story feels real. Possible. And even if it could never have been Margot's story, it may have been somebody else's. Another person who survived the war and emigrated to America. Or any survivor who struggles to know how to find life again. I know this story sounds heavy and deep, but it is actually incredibly relatable. It even features a very sweet romance. I fell in love with Margot, not because of it's darkness, but because it is a book about redemption and hope.
Love Triangle Factor: Mild. I hate to put ratings in when the love triangle is the least important part of the story, but there is a lovely romance imbedded here.
Cliffhanger Scale: Standalone
*I can't thank you enough, Riverhead Trade (Penguin) for the opportunity to read Margot.
**Quote taken from an Uncorrected Proof. May change in final version.