Review of “The Things We Cherished” by Pam Jenoff

This is one of those books about which I could (and will) register complaints, and yet I still enjoyed reading it.

Present day Philadelphia public defender Charlotte Gold takes leave from her job helping juveniles to take on the defense of Roger Dykmans, an octogenarian in Germany charged as a war criminal for having collaborated with the Nazis. His alleged betrayal resulted in the death of his brother Hans as well as the many Jews Hans was trying to save. Charlotte is talked into the venture by her ex-boyfriend Brian, not realizing that, in Germany, she will be working with Brian’s estranged brother Jack.

As the story weaves back and forth in time, we learn what really happened with Roger and Hans, as we also watch the growing attraction between Charlotte and Jack. And tying together the two strands is the story of an old anniversary clock, passed down through the generations, and holding the key to critical events in the lives of the protagonists.

Discussion: I liked this book and sped right through it. But it’s not as polished as I hoped. The parallel love stories that take place in the past and the present, and the heirloom that passes along through the generations and draws the characters together are both overused plot devices. And neither one is developed in a way innovative enough to justify yet another rendition.

A lot of the background information given on the Holocaust is delivered didactically, and should have been more smoothly integrated into the story.

Some of the characters are improbably or irritatingly clueless in matters of the heart. In addition, Brian and Jack, both supposedly top-flight lawyers, often seem like amateurs, especially with respect to dealing with witnesses and evidence.

Last but not least, the outcome is as predictable as could be.

So why did I like it? Even a hackneyed plot is enough for me in a story that (a) deals with the moral complexities of war crimes; (b) features legal procedural elements; (c) includes a romance; and (d) has some nuance in at least some of the characters. But more than that: war adds poignancy and drama to stories; it provides swelling background music. It lends life or death urgency to the most mundane activities. The farther we are from the actual impact of fighting and death, the more we find war to be romantic. And even if it is close to us, we know that no other experience in life can match it for intensity. Thus the most overused ideas can be immeasurably enhanced, and we may even superimpose our own knowledge of the setting to reinforce that which is provided by the author.

Do I recommend this book? Yes – not super-enthusiastically, but yes, nevertheless! It’s a quite readable story that incorporates a lot of information about the Holocaust, especially about what it was like to live in Germany during WWII.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Doubleday, 2011

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18 Responses to Review of “The Things We Cherished” by Pam Jenoff

  1. Barbara says:

    Too bad this book wasn’t written better. The idea is great, and timely since the man who lived in Ohio (Demyanuk sp?) was just convicted in Germany of being a Nazi prison camp guard. I think I’ll read it despite the flaws.

  2. zibilee says:

    I am also going to be reviewing this book, and what you’ve said about it makes me alternately compelled and frustrated. I can enjoy a book that is not elegantly written, though I do prefer it. I am glad that you called this one like like you saw it. I will have to remember your reservations when I am reading.

  3. Melissa V. says:

    Great review. I completely agree.

  4. Margot says:

    I like your paragraph about why you liked the book and why war stories are so appealing. I have thought about it that way before, but you are right. Even everyday events seem so dramatic with war in the background.

  5. I’m so glad I read your review. I have this book and my hopes were pretty high for it. Knowing now to lower my expectations will probably let me enjoy it more.

  6. BermudaOnion says:

    I have a feeling I’ll like this one too!

  7. I was hoping to read some thoughts on this one soon. Sorry it was just ok. I read one of her other books, and kind of felt the same about it. I think I will still give this a try at some point. Thanks for sharing with us.

  8. Sandy says:

    This is a tough call. Because I’ve read alot of WWII stories, I guess I can be a little picky about them. I’m not real sure this book would satisfy me…

  9. Jenners says:

    So an unenthusiastic yes but a yes nonetheless.

  10. Megan says:

    I’m a total sucker for WWII stories. This one sounds good enough, if just barely, for my wish list.

  11. Ann says:

    Thanks for your honest review.

  12. I started this book on vacation and am only a few chapters in but I can already see some of what you say here is true. When thinking about the anniversary clock being passed down, my first thought was that it reminded me of Accordion Crimes by E. Annie Proulx, following the story of the accordion over several generations. Still, you know how drawn I am to WWII novels, and I’ve enjoyed all of Jenoff’s books so far. I’ve linked to your review on War Through the Generations.

  13. Julie P. says:

    Fantastic review. I have this one coming up soon!

  14. stacybuckeye says:

    It takes a lot for me to pick up a WWII book and your unenthusiastic recommendation has not convinced me 🙂 I received Gage’s books. Thank you so much. You are too sweet for words.

  15. Staci says:

    I’m probably going to pass on this one…I normally stick with your 4 and 5’s…but your review was awesome…as usual!!

  16. Vasilly says:

    Great review. I love the cover!

  17. Carole says:

    Thanks for a fab review, I love the cover as well. I’ve put a link to your review on my blog here ….

  18. Ceri says:

    I did like the sound of this as I was reading your review and would definitely give it a go even if it was more ‘good’, not ‘great.’ I do like WWII themes in stories – I have a kind of fascination with it – but I’m also a sucker for a little bit of romance/attraction amongst drama. Great review, hun. 😀

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