Berlin, 1938. When Beatrice, a young Irish Protestant lace maker, is whisked away from her dreary life to join the household of Felix and Dorthea Metzenburg, she feels like she’s landed in the middle of a fairy tale. Art collectors, and friends to the most fascinating men and women of Europe, the Metzenburgs are part of a world where there is more to desire than she ever imagined.
However Germany has launched its campaign of aggression across Europe, and, before long, the conflict reaches the family’s threshold. Retreating to their country estate, the Metzenburgs do their best to ignore the encroaching war until the realities of hunger, illness, and Nazi terror begin to threaten their very existence. In searing and emotional detail, The Life of Objects illuminates Beatrice’s journey from childhood to womanhood, from naïveté to wisdom, as a continent collapses into darkness around her.
Excerpted from The Life of Objects by Susanna Moore. Copyright © 2012 by Susanna Moore. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Susanna Moore is the author of the novels The Big Girls, One Last Look, In the Cut, Sleeping Beauties, The Whiteness of Bones, and My Old Sweetheart, and two books of nonfiction, Light Years: A Girlhood in Hawai’i and I Myself Have Seen It: The Myth of Hawai’i. She lives in New York City.
Susanna Moore is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com).
“Wonderful. . . . Exquisite. . . . A miracle of clarity and beauty. It’s the kind of book I read and think, this is why I do this. . . . It’s because it’s possible to write books like this, and because books like this exist in the world.” —Emily St. John Mandel, The Millions
“Undeniably powerful. . . . Moore’s an extremely assured novelist, and her themes here ring out … War changes everyone, and nothing is promised to us forever, not even each other.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Nearly flawless. So much can happen in a sentence, by such slight (to the reader) but rigorous and elegant means. I nearly gasped at some parts. And there is something gravely and humanly funny about others.” —Alec Wilkinson, author of The Ice Balloon
“Subtle and acutely written.” —The Boston Globe
“A frightening and wholly convincing evocation of life in Germany during the twilight of the Third Reich.” —J. M. Coetzee, author of Summertime
“The Metzenburgs’ world is just as astounding to Beatrice as it would be to any modern reader stepping out of a time machine. . . . Moore manages to span the entirety of World War II in a way that is impressively thorough and demonstrates that even the most privileged weren’t immune to its ravages.” —Daily News
“The Life of Objects isn’t long but it gives the full sweep of the Nazi reign and the Soviet occupation. Its details are so convincing, it reads like a memoir not a novel—a magnificent achievement.” —Edmund White, author of Jack Holmes and His Friend
“A marvelous book, devastating in its simplicity. It’s a beautifully controlled examination of a life stripped, like a body in wartime, of inessentials. I love the fact that kindness—though not sentimentality—turns out to be an essential. But for me the heart of the matter is Moore’s language: as strong as plainchant, and as beautiful.” —Nicola Griffith, author of The Blue Place and Ammonite
“The Life of Objects is absolutely gripping in the precision of its wartime narrative, and chilling in its evocation of a fidelity to the sensuality of this world in the face of the most deeply cynical of the world’s capacities. This extraordinary novel speaks to class, emigration and tragedy in our time as devastatingly as Buddenbrooks spoke to Thomas Mann’s own young century.” —Susan Wheeler, winner of the Witter Bynner Prize for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts & Letters
“An unsparing look at a country’s disintegration.” —More
“In The Life of Objects, Susanna Moore tells the story of a young woman’s initiation into the worlds of beauty, suffering, cynicism, and grace. What astounds me about this work is its ability to attend with equal fidelity to the quiet nuances of self-discovery and the deceptions and depravities of World War II. This is a lyrical and courageous book.” —Tracy K. Smith, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry
1. What contributes to Beatrice’s unhappiness and disaffection in Ballycarra? What does her devotion to novels and fairy tales show about the influence literature has on dreams and expectations? In what ways does her reading increase her isolation and estrangement from those around her? How do the heroines Beatrice admires (p. 5) and the specific works she refers to (pp. 21, 45, 47–48) help to create a sense of her character? What else do they add to Moore’s novel?
2. In addition to being her teacher, what role does Mr. Knox play in Beatrice’s life? What is the importance of his interest in bird-watching and making lists? In what ways do Mr. Knox’s habits and behavior anticipate the qualities Felix Metzenburg exhibits?
3. Why does Beatrice adopt the name of Maeve as she embarks on her adventure?
4. “Because her wealth served to isolate her, Frau Metzenburg did not trouble herself with the customary prejudices of her class. Herr Felix . . . was unusual in that neither money nor adoration had ruined him” (p. 40). How do Felix’s and Dorothea’s manners and demeanor differ, and how does this affect Beatrice’s feelings about each of them?
5. What do Inez’s description of Felix’s past and Beatrice’s observations of his daily activities establish about the changes occurring as the Nazis assume power? What hints are there of the injustices and cruelties to come?
6. What does the novel convey about the response of ordinary citizens to the extraordinary events occurring around them? Discuss, for example, Felix’s reaction to the invasion of Poland, the disappearance of his friends in Berlin, and the implementation of anti-Jewish laws; Fraulein Roeder’s “admiration of Hitler’s frequent speeches” (p. 51) and her insistence that “Frau Metzenburg’s great-grandmother had not been a Jew, despite the lies spread by the wicked (p. 54); Herr Elias’s revelation that he is Jewish; and Beatrice’s subsequent conversation with Casper about Jews (p. 53).
7. Beatrice says, “Part of [Dorothea’s] fascination, of course, was her secretiveness. She could not bear to be anticipated, or forestalled, taking great care to conceal a meaningless or innocent gesture” (p. 90). What information does Dorothea (or the author) withhold and why? Do the details about Dorothea’s background and marriage revealed later in the book cast a different light on her behavior and the things she values (pp. 134–38)?
8. Why do Felix and Dorothea remain in Germany despite Inez’s urging that they leave (p. 138)? Does hiding their treasures (and valuables given them by others) and the sheltering of refugees at their home represent a stubborn refusal to face reality, or can these be seen as acts of defiance—or hope?
9. At the Adlon Beatrice observes, “No one was who he appeared to be—it was too dangerous to be yourself, unless you were one of them, and perhaps even then” (p. 104). Does survival in wartime necessitate deception and self-deception? Does such intentional artifice undermine the moral foundations of a society? What effect, if any, does it have on an individual’s sense of self-respect?
10. Like the villagers in the novel, many Germans blamed the Jews for what was wrong in their country and dismissed reports that the Jews were being annihilated. Do you agree with Felix’s reflection that “By the time that we understand what is happening . . . we are already complicit” (p. 113). To what extent are Felix and Dorothea complicit in the madness that has engulfed Europe? Do their generosity and humanitarian efforts as the war progresses and the Red Army wreaks destruction on the countryside mitigate the blame and shame of their failure to act earlier?
11. What do Beatrice’s reports on actual events gathered from German, Swiss, and BBC news broadcasts, as well as the busy network of rumors, reveal about the often-blurry line between journalism and propaganda, fact and speculation? In this context, discuss the American choice to ignore for so long stories about the Reich’s systematic murder of Jews and other “objectionable” people (p.150).
12. How does the discovery of the American soldier in the woods change Beatrice’s sense of purpose and self-worth (pp. 159–75)? In the course of caring for him and listening to his stories, what does she realize about what was missing in her own life?
13. Only hours after she leaves the American, Beatrice is brutally raped by Red Army soldiers (pp. 179–80). Is the juxtaposition of these two incidents significant? In what ways do the encounters, one tender, one horrific, symbolize Beatrice’s coming-of-age?
14. At the end of the war, Beatrice says, she and others were “left with the inexhaustible presence of evil. . . . We had survived, but we were different people” (pp. 198–99). How does the legacy of the war and the new order in Germany shape the trials and the final tragedy Dorothea and Beatrice must deal with? What personal strengths and emotional needs underlie and nurture the intimacy between the two women? What signs are there that both women are ready to move on with their lives?
15. Several vividly drawn secondary characters enhance the intricacy of the portrait presented in The Life of Objects. What roles do Countess Inéz, Kreck, Herr Elias, Caspar, and Fraulein Roeder play in the novel and in Beatrice’s life? How does each character teach her something, or reveal something, that changes her understanding of the world?
16. Moore is a master at creating precise visual images--of clothing, household objects, and especially the rare items in the Metzenburg collections. In what ways do the finely wrought precision and vividness of these descriptions serve as a counterpoint to the dark themes Moore explores? Do they illuminate and explain the novel’s title?
17. How does The Life of Objects differ from other novels you have read about Europe during the Second World War? What effect does Moore’s choice of an uninformed young woman as narrator have on the power and credibility of the novel? In what ways does the book’s focus on a domestic drama deepen your understanding of the qualities, good and bad, that enable people to endure the atrocities of war?