By Harriet P. Gross
In a few short days we’ll mark the 71st anniversary of Kristallnacht, “the Night of Broken Glass,” when Jewish windows and storefronts were reduced to shards sparkling on German streets. May I suggest a book appropriate for this painful, infamous, never-to-be-forgotten time in our collective history? It’s “Broken for You,” a novel by Stephanie Kallos that hit the best-seller lists and made the book club circuit a few years ago.
I’ve read it twice, presented it to several groups and think it deserves attention for the messages at its heart — not for the romantic antics that make most novels, including this one, merit their classification as such. Ignore those, but home in on what Kallos’ skill builds into the structure of her story. While this is a book about the making of mosaics, the book is itself a mosaic of sorts.
It takes its title from the Catholic sacrament of Holy Communion, harking back to Jesus’ famed Last Supper, when he commented, while portioning out bread as food to his disciples, “This is my body, broken for you.” (A moment, by the way, making one of the deep-rooted connections between Judaism and Christianity, between Passover and Easter. But something to be discussed at another time….)
In this story, elderly Margaret Hughes, a wealthy divorced woman, her only child long dead, is alone with a fatal illness and her money in a mansion filled with exquisite French porcelain. She decides, rather quixotically, to rent out a room, and — as in all good novels — the story spins off from this simple starting place to weave a fabric of inevitables.
Or rather, to create a mosaic from these inevitables. The many priceless pieces that inhabit Margaret Hughes’ home were confiscated from wealthy French Jews during World War II and brought back when she was small by her domineering father, who dealt in these stolen items without scruples and made a fortune doing so. The young woman who becomes the roomer has problems of her own, but she also possesses a creative talent, discovered only after Mrs. Hughes finally decides what to do with all those beautiful things whose owners cannot be traced: Wanda has an artist’s eye, and can fashion beautiful, meaningful, new creations out of bits of broken glass.
While she fleshes out the character of Wanda, Kallos also introduces a small crowd of individuals who coalesce into an unlikely family of sorts: a literal-minded registered nurse, a Scottish hotel valet, a gay chef, a couple of drifters who wander in — like Wanda herself — and stay on to become handymen in the house that is suddenly a home. A human mosaic.
Kallos has lived large and done all kinds of homework to make this story work. She’s at least minimally competent in her understanding of jazz and bebop, the sport of bowling, the French language. She knows the streets of Seattle and the green grass of Ireland, and is as conversant with the poetry of the latter’s W.B. Yeats as with the nursery rhymes of every American childhood. She understands loneliness and loss, too, speaking eloquently through her paper people of dreams and realities, frustrations and fulfillments, suffering and redemption. And she builds into them a capacity for patience possible only in a saint. Or in a story.
Porcelain is her medium for exploring the bottomless horrors of the Holocaust in a way that helps make it as graspable as the handle of a fine china teacup. And our author doesn’t shy away from the controversy that such breaking and remaking as she depicts would be bound to cause, if it could ever take place in real life — which of course it cannot. But coincidences and ironies are part of all our real lives, and Kallos makes of hers another mosaic, giving them a finished shape and purpose that few of us are privileged to see in what happens to ourselves.
Is Stephanie Kallos Jewish herself? Or is she perhaps seeking to close some circle of her own, as she does in this book, whose end is inherent in its beginning — even if that becomes clear only when the reading is done? She never answers the religion question outright. There are some who say that only Jews, survivors at best, can write with truth about the Holocaust. But others can make up stories which are not truth, yet are genuinely representative of it. This author has proven she has the background, the knowledge and the ability to do just that.
By Harriet P. Gross