Summary and book reviews of Louisa by Simone Zelitch

Louisa

By Simone Zelitch

Louisa
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  • Hardcover: Aug 2000,
    384 pages.
    Paperback: Dec 2001,
    384 pages.

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Book Summary



"I smoked my first cigarette when I was six years old.... Now where the hell can I get a cigarette?"

The year is 1949 and Nora, a prickly, strong-willed survivor of the Holocaust, has just walked off the boat in Haifa with her German daughter-in-law, Louisa. Nora expects to be met by her cousin Bela, a Zionist and war hero she has loved since they were children. But Bela fails to appear, and the women enter an absorption camp for immigrants to await an uncertain future. How will they fit into a society that does not believe in looking back? Louisa, the daughter of Nazi parents, proves a genius at self-invention-in many ways the perfect Israeli. Nora is neither heroic nor optimistic, yet she has no other home. When rumors swirl around the camp, she responds with a cranky and ironic distance that rises like a wall of barbed wire. What is she protecting behind that wall? The past, and its secrets.

In Louisa, Simone Zelitch brings to life, with all the authority and inventive power of an old master, a story of hidden passion, broken dreams, and unexpected reconciliation. Stranded in a new land that asks them to look to the future, both women are forced to face the past and the responsibility each bears for what they have lost. Nora knows how to survive. Louisa must teach her how to forgive.

Chapter 1


I smoked my first cigarette when I was six years old. I found it on the kitchen windowsill, though the railway platform proved more reliable. The butts I gathered on that platform made terrible, gritty cigarettes, hardly worth re-rolling, yet to my mind, they're all mixed up with where I smoked them, by the tracks. I loved the trains, window after window of Budapesti smokers who would carry cigarettes to theaters, lectures, and cafés. I'd do those things too. But later there would also be smokes passed, like gifts, between strangers in the dark.

Now where the hell can I get a cigarette? Everyone in Israel is a smoker, but nobody gets something for nothing, and what do I have to trade? Not that my head's the clearest. We're just off the boat, Louisa and I, and we expected my cousin, Bela, to meet us at the dock, but he wasn't there. We went through customs, and there were so many of us piling in at once that we were backed up for hours. By the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Is Louisa a love story? If so, whose love story?
  2. Louisa is narrated by Nora, who has no trouble revealing the interior lives of other characters, such as Gabor and Bela. How does Nora get access to this information? As she tells their stories as well as her own, are there certain aspects of their lives that she doesn't understand, or will not admit?
  3. In the camp for new arrivals, several of the Israelis express their disgust for the Holocaust survivors. What might be some of the sources of this attitude? To what extent is it consistent with other aspects of Israeli society as depicted in the novel?
  4. Why does Louisa follow Nora? At the novel's outset, she answers the question by simply saying that she loves her, an answer Nora finds ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
Boston Globe, October 1, 2000

A grand, brave open-hearted novel that is not afraid of its own ambitions, Louisa is honest, intelligent and highly entertaining.

Book Page

The steady voices of the characters hold the reader through the strange and unlikely tales of this fascinating book.

Booklist

Zelitch's talent shines in this well-paced epic novel, and the combination of Nora's frank, realistic voice with romantic imagery is striking and beautiful ashes from a burnt synagogue clinging to Nora's favorite apricot tree, Louisa's angelic voice singing to Nora through a grate to the cellar where Nora hides.

Publisher's Weekly

Starred Review. Zelitch's narrative teases with emotional puzzles, and surprises with unexpected developments.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Superb...a seamless interweaving of observation, memory, and imagination...A mature and absorbing story...

Sunday Times (UK)

Talk about finding the silver lining. Here's a novel that spans nearly 50 years of Hungarian Jewish history -- from the empire of Franz Josef through World War II and the Holocaust to the early days of the state of Israel -- and transforms struggle and tragedy into an enthralling tale. By choosing to explore a subject within the shadow of Auschwitz, Simone Zelitch's second novel, 'Louisa,' ambitiously invites comparison with Isaac Bashevis Singer's novel 'The Family Moskat' or William Styron's Sophie's Choice. And, remarkably, Zelitch's book holds its own, thanks to a satisfying plot, vivid characters, a tart narrative voice and a bold conceit.

Author Blurb Pearl Abraham, author of The Romance Reader
...Simone Zelitch's ability to capture the essence of life in pre- and mid-Holocaust Europe...lends new insight to both stories.

Author Blurb Bob Shacochis, National Book Award winner for fiction
Remember the genius with which Jane Smiley retold the story of King Lear and his daughters on a thousand acres of Iowa farmland? It is with the same such genius that Simone Zelitch transforms the biblical story of the widow Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth. What a fine book it is, and utterly compelling.

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