Review – The Seventh Gate

Sophie Riedesel is a teenager in Berlin in 1932. Other than being too smart for her own good with a biting sense of humor and always ready with a sarcastic remark, she’s a fairly normal young woman of the time. When Hitler begins his rise to power, her life takes a drastic turn. Her father, a scientist and a member of the Communist party with strong beliefs, suddenly switches to the Nazi party and espouses views she never thought he had. Sophie wants to believe he did it to save his job and family, but she isn’t entirely sure that’s the case. She has trouble understanding her father now, and it becomes even worse when her boyfriend, who she’s known since they were small children, also joins the party telling her things she doesn’t want to hear.

With all the men in her once-stable life now on the wrong side of her belief system, she takes comfort in her growing friendship with an older Jewish neighbor, Isaac Zarco, and his eclectic and — according to the Nazi party — socially unacceptable group of friends, which includes Jews, social activists, and some former circus performers.

As Germany changes, so does Sophie. Her relationship with her father, once open and loving, becomes halting and difficult. Her already strained and distant relationship with her mother, who outwardly doesn’t seem to care for her, turns nasty. Her younger brother, Hansi, a boy who hasn’t spoken in years, is a silent comfort and burden to her at the same time. She shares things with him she doesn’t tell anyone else, secretly wishes he would go away, and deeply wants to understand what goes on in his head.

Sophie becomes more and more involved with Isaac and the work he and his friends are doing to try and stop the growing power of the Nazi party. Isaac and his friends have formed a group called the Ring, which is working to get the word out and possibly stop the atrocities taking place in Germany. When a member of the group is murdered, Sophie, having grown close to Isaac, begins investigating the murder and asking questions in places she shouldn’t. She eventually becomes so involved in Isaac’s life that he begins making plans to send her away before any harm can come to her.

I don’t read much about World War II because I find it such a sad time in human history, but to me this book is an exception. What drew me to it was the mystery thrown in and mixed with the idea of kabbalist mysticism. Sophie is growing up fast in a city hampered with new rules every day, and it was particularly interesting seeing it all happening through her eyes. She takes risks, false steps, and makes mistakes, but sticks to her beliefs even when she knows what she’s doing could bring harm to those she loves. Her life, which once revolved around her boyfriend and obsession with Hollywood movies, is now made up of a group of people she realizes she can’t live without.

Isaac, who is a scholar of Jewish mysticism, begins teaching Sophie what he knows, and her love for Isaac and understanding of what drives him becomes a force in her life she will fight for in ways she never thought possible. Seeing Sophie change from a young girl fascinated by her own growing sexuality into a woman concerned with the political implications of her country’s governmental policies was an interesting metamorphosis in the way it affected her life in a most singular way — her family and the family she made. It’s Sophie’s ties that make this book so moving.

If you love historical fiction with characters that make no apologies for who they are and what they do, The Seventh Gate is a book you should read.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

The Seventh Gate

By Richard Zimler

Overlook Press

ISBN: 9781590207130

4 stars



The Distant Hours

The Distant Hours

By Kate Morton

Atria Books

ISBN: 978-1-4391-5278-2

4 stars

Kate Morton is a new to me author.  I’ve read some mixed things about her books, and about half way through The Distant Hours, I felt I understood some of those reviews.  In the end, I did enjoy it with the exception of one odd thing that left me wondering which I’ll explain later.

Edie Burchill’s mother never cries so when a letter arrives that leaves her mother in tears, Edie wonders, almost obsessively, what was in the letter.  She finds out, after a lot of questioning, that her mother was a child evacuee during WWII.  Her mother, Meredith, was relocated from London to Milderhurst Castle in the deep countryside and found a life there she never imaged possible.  Unfortunately, it was also during this time that her greatest heartache occurred.  Edie finds herself researching the Castle and its three spinster sisters, Percy, Saffy, and Juniper, with the hope that she’ll be able to understand her mother better.  What she finds is a mystery neatly wrapped up in the pages of a children’s book.

A lot goes on in The Distant Hours but it all happens very slowly.  Morton takes her time un-wrapping the story which in some ways can be infuriating and at other moments it’s lovely.  Her writing style lends itself to long, meandering stories which The Distant Hours definitely is.  I liked that Edie was in publishing and had a deep appreciation for words and books.  It made her research and reading, which she does a lot of, fit seamlessly in but as you can imagine, it doesn’t offer a lot of action.  The story didn’t feel slow so much as weighty though and this book is over 500 pages so it’s a literal and figurative heaviness.

So what left me with an odd feeling?  Everything is this book comes to some sort of conclusion.  Every mystery, every thought, every wonder that Edie had about her mother’s life, the sisters of Milderhurst Castle, all find a neat ending.  I’m not opposed to tidy endings but I wasn’t left wondering at all — about anything.  Honestly, I think I would have liked the book more if some of my questions weren’t answered.  Even some of the peripheral sub-plots were tied up.  I almost felt a little ripped-off because I didn’t get the chance to wonder how certain things turned out — Morton told me everything.

But you’ll notice I still gave this book a rather high rating.  I did that because I enjoyed Morton’s writing and I did find myself at times unable to put the book down.  Parts of the story are wonderfully hypnotic, especially those that take place at the castle.  The sisters’ story is sad, almost as decrepit as the castle itself, and yet romantic.  The story is about love lost and love found.  It’s also about endurance (which is handy when reading a book of this size).  For these reasons, I enjoyed it.

This book was sent to me by the publisher for review.