Bethany House, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-7642-1160-7
Historical Romance, 2014
The TBR Challenge theme for this month is “Impulse Read”, which is basically a book I bought just because. Given the ridiculously overwrought and hysterical online drama surrounding Kate Breslin’s debut effort For Such a Time, however, this one isn’t an impulse read as much as it is a compulsion. Given that the book has taken on a hilariously sinister reputation, I am half-wondering whether my fingers will burst into flames when I pick this book up.
Well, my fingers are still fine. Actually, this book is pretty ordinary. The only problem here is that the author, for some reason, has the guts to set the story in Nazi Germany and has the hero be a SS Kommandant Colonel.
Hadassah Benjamin’s blonde hair and blue eyes allow her to pass as Aryan, and thanks to the forged papers her uncle obtained for her, she manages to take what seems like ten steps as Stella Muller. As any reader would soon see, however, Stella lies like a brick trying to float on water, and she soon finds herself in trouble. Fortunately for her, our gallant and tortured SS Kommandant Colonel hero Aric von Schmidt believes that Stella’s situation is merely due to paperwork gone awry, and decides to take her into his custody, so that she can become his secretary. The transit camp of Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia becomes her home over the course of the story. Given how terrible she is at deception, will Stella be able to pull off her great deception for long? Her uncle happens to be at that camp too… perhaps they can all escape? Or does God have it written in the stars that Stella’s one true love is her captor?
I know, the plot sounds awful on paper, and in a way, the author has set herself up for failure the moment she decides to set this story to such a controversial setting and then have Stella and Aric behave like they are no different than a typical Harlequin Mills & Boon Modern couple.
The author understandably avoids having too much blood on Aric’s hands by making him a “relatively new” officer – until recently, he was a soldier, and now, unfit for the battle field, he has no choice but to prove that he can carry out his new duties or be considered disposable and hence possibly removed by his superiors. Throughout the story, he is actually pretty benevolent compared to his peers, so Stella isn’t in love with a complete monster. That’s a relief to many people, I’m sure. However, Aric also comes off as completely dense when he acts like they are both attending a school play or something. He knows that Stella has seen a girl shot to death before her eyes, and yet, he doesn’t understand why she is so afraid of his colleagues. He is even furious when he realizes that she’s lied about not being Jewish, as if he has no idea why she had to pass herself off as Aryan, These are just some examples. Much of Aric’s behavior and thought processes mark him as someone who may have been beaten a little too often in the head: he can be such a dumb fool at times.
The rest of the time he’s just being a standard creepy bossy type who acts like he’s entitled to sampling from his secretary’s honeypot. This sense of entitlement crests in the epilogue, when he declares that God has forgiven him… because God gave him a hot wife to bone and give him pretty babies. How is he so sure that God has forgiven him anyway? For all he knows, the kid could be the new Antichrist waiting to torture Mommy and Daddy to death one of these days.
Stella is a heroine by Barbara Cartland, minus the stuttering problem. She is prone to blurting wrong things out loud to the wrong people, can’t take two steps of her own without getting accosted by ugly men, and has to sigh and shed tears for every action she is forced to do to survive. At one point, she is even determined not to prostitute herself – it’s nice to see where her priorities lie when it comes to her survival. I know, every other religion has some lady who died rather than to submit her virtue, but come on, that’s why these women are all dead now. Some of the things Stella has to do are just horrifying – being forced to type out the names of her people who would be sent to a concentration camp, for example – so for the most part I can understand why this darling is often flailing around like a drowning pig in a lake. Still, so much of Stella is just too much. She can’t lie well, so she gets in trouble. She can’t stop blurting out things that cross her mind, again she gets into trouble. She acts weak and hapless all the time. All these things combined result in a heroine who needs a big shove from other people or circumstances to do anything. She gets less passive later in the story, but by then, she’s in love with Aric.
Oh yes, the romance. I don’t buy that. The author’s mistake here is to assume that a typical “alpha boss, meek secretary” romance can be easily plonked into this story, hence Stella is attracted to Aric when we aren’t even 100 pages into the story. Seriously, she goes from him being a Jew Killer to a misunderstood kind man so quickly, I have to wonder whether her circumstances have driven her crazy or something. On his part, he doesn’t know why but he feels something special when he picks up Stella’s frail and weak form, something that he has never felt when he’s around other women. Since I’m sure Stella isn’t the first blonde and blue-eyed woman he’s come across, I suspect that something is a whiff of Stella’s really special kind of waif mojo.
Oh, and yes, Stella finds solace in the Christian Bible, but there is no explicit mention of her converting in this story. It’s probably a given, as she’s married to Aric by the time the story ends, but the issue of faith is actually one of the better handled elements here, I feel, except when it comes to the epilogue. Religion is closely tied to one’s spiritual well being, and given that Stella is in a really dark place, and the Christian Bible offers genuine comfort, it makes sense that she may eventually want to convert. At the same time, I can see why some readers get annoyed when a Christian author writes about a Jewish heroine who finds solace in Christianity. The epilogue would really make these readers roll up their eyes, because the characters talk about how God has forgiven them and blessed them silly in a manner that see them actually lecturing the readers on the glory of the Christian deity. In other words, the author is telling the reader in a most corny manner that her god is cooler than everyone else’s.
On the bright side, For Such a Time is very hard to put down. The author acquits herself wonderfully during the more suspenseful moments – I am surprised to find myself at the edge of the seat during those moments. Secondary characters such as Stella’s uncle steal the show with their determination to stay alive – a far cry from Stella’s “sigh and sob my way to a happy ending” mode of operation. Were this a story set in, say, the bleak days after the French Revolution, with Stella being the Cosette to Aric’s Marius, I suspect that I’d be able to enjoy this story without reservation.
Alas, that’s the problem at the end of the day: the author sets her story against a setting that is still a raw wound to many people, and then proceeds to lay on the tropes so thick as if this is any other historical romance. It’s not – for this story to work, the author needs to break the rules, all 150% of them. Even if she fails, at least she may win the reluctant admiration from folks like me for having the guts to even try in the first place. By sticking to the tropes, the author ends up making For Such a Time a huge wasted opportunity as well as a spectacular misfire. Still, I do like the author’s style, so don’t be surprised if you see me reading another title of hers some time in the future.