Its protagonist, Rachel Rabinowitz, is placed in the Hebrew Infant Home at age five after her mother dies and her father abandons her and her brother. She is a compelling character, quick-witted, intelligent, and determined to survive, even if it means lying and stealing, or worse.
There are two narrative threads to follow, expertly woven in alternating chapters. One recounts Rachel’s earliest years in the second decade of the twentieth century and her journey from loved youngest daughter of an immigrant family to orphan abruptly placed in a facility, where she is subjected to X-ray experiments that leave her permanently disfigured.
The second story line is set in present day, in this case 1954, when Rachel is forty and working as a nurse at the Old Hebrews Home. She realizes her new patient is the same Dr. Solomon who performed the medically unnecessary experiments on her as a child and, she soon discovers, may have caused her to become seriously ill.
So much meat for a story and yet, often, I found myself unaffected emotionally to what should have been a heart-wrenching narrative. Frequently, I found the prose to be flat, but more problematic, to this reader, was the use of omniscient POV to relate Rachel’s early life. Questions were answered and motivations explained shortly after being raised, leading to a lessening of tension. The constant head hopping, not just between the main characters, but also from brief walk-ons, often served to interrupt the story rather than propel it.
More successful were the chapters narrated in first person by the now 40-year-old Rachel as she becomes aware of who Dr. Solomon is and is torn between seeking revenge from a woman who harmed her and maternal comfort from the only woman who had shown her any attention after the loss of her parents.
As Rachel confronts the legacy, both emotional and physical, of her earlier traumas, the book races to a satisfying conclusion. This is an interesting story of a forgotten time period that will appeal to readers of historical and general fiction.
Reviewed by Carol Malkin
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