Lauren Fox's first two novels heralded the arrival of a vibrant new voice, one that could articulate the ups and downs in human relationships with warmth, wit and refreshing insight. For her third novel, "Days of Awe," Fox stepped out of her comfort zone and dabbled in darker comedy with a portrait of a woman floundering amid the chaos of her husband's recent departure, her daughter's teenage angst and her best friend's sudden death.
Fox's latest novel sees her continuing to explore family ties and romantic links. On this occasion, though, she attempts something tonally different and structurally more ambitious. "Send for Me" straddles generations, shuttling between 1930s Germany in the run-up to war, and Milwaukee and London in the last years of the 20th century. Drawing on chapters from her own family history, Fox shines a piercing light into the wreckage of the past and illuminates what she terms "the great, bottomless, complex, consuming love between mothers and daughters."
In the German town of Feldenheim, Annelise helps her parents in their bakery while dreaming of a more stimulating life elsewhere with her secret lover, Max. However, she is forced to reimagine her future when he breaks her heart. She finds solace in the arms of shoe salesman Walter and the pair go on to marry and produce a daughter, who for Annelise is "the perfect answer to a question she's been asking for almost twenty-five years."
Sullying their bliss is the mounting tide of anti-Jewish sentiment. Violence rages in the street, customers boycott the bakery and one of Annelise's oldest friends severs contact with her because she has "bad blood" and is "not a good influence." When Annelise finally becomes smothered by the "breathless fog of hate," she seizes an opportunity to move to America with her husband and child — regretfully leaving her parents behind to an uncertain fate.
Decades later in Wisconsin, Annelise's granddaughter Clare is deciding whether a relationship with an Englishman abroad is worth the risk. Then one day she comes across her grandmother's letters. Sifting them, she starts to piece together lost fragments of her family's history. Gradually a story emerges of love and longing, bravery and tragedy, which for Clare proves to be both enlightening and inspiring.
Fox's narrative flits between past and present to tell two tales in tandem, but it also makes effective use of flash-forwards to reveal roads that will be taken and pitfalls that lie ahead. Shifts in perspective create a more comprehensive picture, while the quirkily descriptive prose adds color and mystery: "Her body was an engine left idling. She was half of a secret."
This could have been a jarring clash of voices and a messy fusion of the historical and the modern. Instead it is an artfully constructed and richly absorbing novel that shows how love is strengthened, not weakened, over distance and time.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Send for Me
By: Lauren Fox.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 272 pages, $26.95.
Event: Club Book, 7 p.m., March 1.