Just after World War II, a young American lieutenant receives orders to guard a train loaded with mysterious valuables. As he surveys the China plates and fine jewelry, he seeks some sign of their provenance. He finds a menorah and a silver cup with Hebrew lettering and confronts the Hungarian official leading him through the train. After some bluster and denial, the man confirms his suspicion: The riches were plundered from the homes of Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust.
This train of looted treasures forms the emotional epicenter of Ayelet Waldman’s new novel, “Love & Treasure.” The cargo of intimate goods offers mute testimony to the lives of vanished people, but it also presents some difficult questions. What ethics govern the custodians of property that can never be returned? How do the personal and the political intertwine in the wake of historical tragedy?
These questions permeate the novel’s three sections. The first follows lieutenant Jack Wiseman in postwar Salzburg as he struggles to guard the train’s contents. The primary looters are Americans. His superiors requisition plates and glasses for parties, and men under his command pilfer the expensive items they are SUPPOSED TO BE protecting. As a Jewish American soldier, Wiseman wants to preserve the possibility that some goods might be returned to the owners or their heirs.
The novel’s middle section traces the efforts of Wiseman’s granddaughter, Natalie, to return a necklace from the train to its owner’s relative in 2013. As she sleuths through records and libraries, she meets a gray market art dealer named Amitai who specializes in selling valuables of dubious origins. The necklace interests him because he thinks it could help locate a lost painting by a Hungarian artist. Amitai is more concerned with profit than with restoring cultural patrimony, while Natalie tries to fulfill her grandfather’s dying wish that she return the necklace to a legitimate owner.
The final and strongest section animates the world of Jewish Budapest in 1913, offering portraits of some of the people whose possessions would eventually fill the train. The narrator is a Jewish psychoanalyst who presents a case study of an unusual patient, a young suffragette who wants to study medicine. Her parents regard this as proof of insanity and demand that she submit to therapy.
Waldman creates a charming critique of psychoanalysis. The narrator confidently informs his patient that menstrual cramps arise from “excessive masturbation and a consequent shame response.” But for all his studied detachment, he gets excited at the slightest hint of gossip or prurience. He’s also managed to convince himself that stroking patients will help cure them. Eventually the analyst himself becomes the object of scrutiny as he wavers between the misogynist orthodoxies of his day and a creeping suspicion that his patient might be sane after all.
The comic tone of the last section gently suggests the inadequacy of simple moral reckonings; The misogyny of many Jews before the Second World War challenges idealized images of Holocaust victims as flawless martyrs. Showing the failings of the characters imbues them with a fuller and more complex humanity.
At points, however, such nuance disappears; one evil Nazi is beaten in a bar, while an evil and dumb Nazi is robbed and tricked. These scenes offer the satisfaction of watching good defeat evil, but the book’s best moments explore subtle ambiguities.
There was a so-called “gold train” found after World War II, and feminist ferment did occur in early-20th-century Budapest. But Waldman sometimes struggles to integrate her historical research smoothly into the narrative; the characters can sound like they’re reciting from a textbook rather than conversing. As if to compensate, her writing often gushes with sentimentality.
Despite some clumsily disguised research and overheated prose, “Love & Treasure” improves with each of its three sections. It’s impossible to definitively settle the broader questions the novel raises, but in its best pages, the human stories behind the looted objects flicker into life.
Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.