Dream Review of Lunch With Charlotte: Nonfiction Finalist for Best Indie Book in 2013

Lunch with Charlotte [Final]

It’s that time of the year again when The New Kindle Book Review is running its Best Indie Books of the Year awards. Top five finalists for the 2013 awards in various genres were announced September 1, 2013. In keeping with our tradition established last year in the first year of the awards, we have asked each of the finalists who care to participate to provide us two pieces: a dream interview and a dream review. Although the dream interviews will appear under my byline, the posts are the work of the finalist authors. We hope you enjoy them and use them as an introduction to the works of these fine writers.

Leon Berger’s dream review of Lunch with Charlotte

As if written in The New York Times

Leon Berger
Leon Berger

In the firmament of literary accomplishment, only one genre is sacrosanct, completely secure from ink-stained critique, and that, of course, is the form that concerns itself with the Holocaust. Within this milieu, all prose is valid, every story worthy of admiration, each testimony a heartbreak unto itself.

Yet even here, if we’re honest, some narratives shine more brightly than others. Why, for example, do we especially recall Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel? What made Styron’s Sophie and Keneally’s Schindler such memorable characters? How did Spiegelman’s strangely clever “Maus” affect so many of us?

At the risk of entering Tweet response hell, I would suggest that it’s because on these particular pages, beyond the fundamental horror of genocide there’s something else at work. Call it another layer, an extra dimension that touches us at a deeper level. A young girl locked away who longs for a simple tree. An ordinary woman who is forever consumed by the tragic choice she once had to make. A slick operator who joins the Nazi party out of greed, then somehow finds inner redemption by saving Jews from the gas chamber. In each case, it’s not the atrocity that makes it exceptional, it’s the personalization of it.

Such a saga, too, is Leon Berger’s Lunch With Charlotte.

While the context is indeed profound – the young existence trampled by jackboots, the screaming bombs that pulverized a city, the desperate struggle at a pitiless sweatshop – this book is far more than just the repetition of a fraught history; so much more, in fact, that it comes with not one extra dimension but two.

The first is the woman herself and the shattering trauma she suffered at the age of nineteen. Before that happened, Charlotte was a robust, fun-loving youth, generous to a fault, a Viennese “Anne of Green Gables” if you will, with that same naive optimism. After the trauma, she turned to stone, isolated in her own mind, immune to all hardship as she tried to cope while weighed down by the emotional baggage. Yet there’s a sense of hope we discover in her story, as revealed by the methods by which she tried to restore her personality, the private way she gradually managed to rediscover her sense of humor in a crazed world. In this manner, we not only get to know her but also to love her, just as the author seems to have done – which leads us neatly enough to the second layer involving Berger himself.

Each week for no less than twenty-five years, he kept his Friday promise to visit Charlotte: to eat, to talk and above all, to listen. It was an unlikely friendship if only because she was a generation older and, unable to bear children herself, she came to regard him as the son she never had. It’s this connection, this mutual respect, that comes across in the brief chapters-between-chapters, a series of author anecdotes which describe how the aging Charlotte fared at these bagel-and-cream cheese lunches – sometimes serious, often humorous, but occasionally just weeping for an hour or more with her head in her hands while refusing to reveal why.

Over this long quarter century, she lost her physical mobility and his beard turned to gray but, still, he listened – until one day, not long before she passed away, she confessed the true nature of the trauma she’d suffered, the dark secret she’d told no one else, and suddenly everything made sense to him. Learning about that early shock allowed him to fully understand his old friend Charlotte, why she was the way she was, one minute up, the next down, a continual roller-coaster of emotion. That’s when Berger realized the full power of the saga and finally asked if he could write it all down. Initially, she refused. Even now, the psychological scars still hadn’t fully healed. Then, without any pressure at all, she relented. “Okay,” she told him, “I guess somebody should remember… but wait till I’m gone.”

He did so and today, this memoir represents her legacy, a haunting tale that’s guaranteed to linger long after the book is finally closed. One reader went so far as to label it “a heritage of mankind” and I must admit that, from this critic’s perspective at least, such a comment is neither hype nor hyperbole. Like the book, it is simply the truth.

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