Book Review: That Summer in Berlin
By Jami Denison
If Elizabeth Bennet had come of age in 1930s London rather than in the English countryside a hundred plus years earlier, she might have met Mr. Darcy while working as a spy for the crown. Viviane Alden, the heroine of Lecia Cornwall’s latest historical fiction novel That Summer in Berlin, has much of Elizabeth’s daring, intelligence, and humor. Fans of Pride and Prejudice and readers of World War II fiction alike will be engrossed in this novel.
Lady Viviane Alden, stepdaughter of an English lord, has just broken off her engagement after learning of her fiancé’s Fascist leanings. In 1930s Britain, the gentry is torn between supporting Hitler’s plans for a new modern Germany or fearing the rise of their World War I foe. Alden, whose father died as a result of German gas, has no such uncertainty. She knows the Germans are the bad guys and wants nothing to do with them.
Her Mr. Darcy is Tom Graham, a reporter she meets cute when a mutual friend rescues her from drowning. They exchange quips like Tracy and Hepburn, but when Tom realizes that Viviane is the anonymous photographer sending incredible pictures to his newspaper, he develops a begrudging respect for her. When Tom is tasked with covering the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin in order to learn if Hitler is actually preparing for war, he recommends Viviane—who was invited to Germany to chaperone her younger stepsister’s holiday—as his photographer. As her sister falls in love with the Nazi son of their host family, Viviane gets an up-close look at some of Hitler’s biggest supporters.
It's a complicated plot, seeped in both history and romance tropes, but for the most part, Cornwall pulls it off well. I definitely “shipped” Viviane and Tom from the first page and admired the careful back stories that the author created for these characters. When the action moves to Berlin and Tom and Viviane are in danger, the stakes rise naturally without a shift in tone. The characters remain believable throughout the book. My only quibble is that Cornwall offered several chapters from the point of view of other characters; these segues felt unnecessary and distracting.
How did Hitler get Germany to support him so enthusiastically? Cornwall puts readers right there in the crowd, with Germans waving swastika flags and Hitler Youth marching in smart rows. Using the Jewish people as scapegoats, Hitler told his followers that they were the superior race, destined to rule over all others. He banned books and made it illegal to discuss German actions in World War I. Reading these scenes, I couldn’t help but picture Donald Trump in his stadium, “Make America Great Again” flags flying all around, telling his followers that Democrats are evil. And even though he’ll probably never be president again, his hateful ideas live on. As red states move to outlaw abortion, health care for transgender adults and children, and even talking about gay families and civil rights history, it seems that part of America learned the wrong lessons about Hitler.