Book review: The Glass Room

While the first posts on the new site have all been political, I actually think it was the book reviews that I missed most while I was offline.  I found myself writing them in my head as I considered the books that I was reading.  I also felt a bit guilty about not getting to post a review of The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer, because the publishers sent me a review copy.

The Glass Room, which was a finalist for the Booker Prize, is a fictionalized version of the lives of the owners and residents of the Villa Tugendhat, a very modernistic house built in Czechoslovakia on the verge of the Nazi invasion.  The first part of the story follows the original owners, a wealthy Jewish (part Jewish, actually) family from their honeymoon, where they get the idea of building this house, into exile in Switzerland, South America and finally the United States, and then loops back to see what’s happening in the house under Nazi and Communist domination over Czechoslovakia.

The first part of the story totally hooked me.  I stayed up way too late the first night I got it, reading.  I believed in the characters, the house, and was haunted by their naive belief that they were members of a truly modern, international, forward looking society, even as the known conclusion moved ever closer.  Mawer’s imagining of how Chamberlain’s appeasement speech (where he says “However much we may sympathize with a small nation confronted by a big and powerful neighbor, we cannot in all circumstances undertake to involve the whole British Empire in war simply on her account. If we have to fight it must be on larger issues than that.”) was highly effective.  The metaphor of the Glass Room of the title — the house that exposes all of its secrets — is perhaps pushed a bit too far — but Mawer knows it and plays with the edge.

I was less enthralled by the rest of the book.  The writing remained elegant, but the years sped by too fast, and I never cared about any of the characters who were not introduced in the first section.  And I found myself feeling somewhat manipulated by the references to the Holocaust and by the neat tying up of loose ends through implausible coincidences.

But I think I’d still recommend it, all in all.

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