Historical fiction is always interesting to read, and there’s something about World War II that’s just really extra interesting. Ellen Keith’s The Dutch Wife, however, was a hard book to get in to.
It focuses mainly on Marijke de Graaf, a Dutch woman who is arrested with her husband, but separated when she is sent to Ravensbruck and her husband to Buchenwald. Marijke is given a tough decision: she can either remain in the prison camp, starving, freezing and likely to die, or, she can join a select group of women being sent to Buchenwald to staff the prisoners’ brothel.
Motivated by the chance to find her husband, Marijke decides to go, and crosses paths with SS Officer Karl Muller, who wants to be both a tender lover, and a hardened military man.
Meanwhile, more than 30 years in the future, one Luciano Wagner is abducted from his home in Argentina, and finds his own will to survive sorely tested.
I didn’t pay close enough attention to the dates, so I didn’t realize Luciano’s part of the story was taking place in the ’70s, instead of during WWII. But even knowing that, and despite the tie-in at the ending, Luciano’s story doesn’t really fit in, and Keith provides no context for what is going on in Argentina at the time, I had to do research after the fact to understand what was going on and why Luciano would have been taken. His story wants to be its own book, and despite her intentions, Keith didn’t do it justice, though I do see why she put it in this book (an attempt at a wow-factor ending).
As for the main story, while it was interesting enough, Marijke kind of comes across as weak and lacking in character, falling into a spoiled, pampered life without fear once Muller falls in love with her.
And Muller is so lukewarm, it’s almost worse than a cliche story of a man who turns his back on everything he was raised to believe in for the sake of love. He wants to love Marijke, but he acknowledges it’s wrong. When she calls him out on some of his behavior, he is angry with her and defends it, spouting off Nazi rhetoric.
All in all, the best way I can think to describe it is surfacey. The characters don’t feel like they have a lot of depth, despite the time Keith dedicated to internal reflection. It’s an interesting premise with interesting stories, but I think by giving it three perspectives, she lost what chance she had at creating one compelling story. As far as historical fiction goes, it won’t be a go-to recommendation when it hits the shelves in September.