“In the midst of a feminist revolution, Karla is an island of uncertainty.”
Among The Survivors is a beautiful journey into self-discovery. Karla Most has been raised by her very paranoid, possibly delusional but very single mother. She has been dressed in black since she was a baby, (even her diapers according to motherly lore), and has always had a suitcase packed and ready to go under her bed, just in case. Karla has always forgiven her mother’s oddities and quirks, as surviving the Holocaust is no easy feat and would leave anyone scarred.
But after her mother’s death, she finds a photograph under the bed, hidden and never talked about. A family from the past: the father wearing a swastika and the child strongly resembling her mother. Rather than finding herself free after her mother’s death, Karla finds herself trapped by her mother more than ever.
I really enjoyed Karla. She has a sense of humor and a rebelliousness to her, but is also very naive and sheltered. The mix results in a woman who wants to find herself but has no idea how to go about doing that. She lets her wealthy grandparents and her wealthy boyfriend handle her affairs and make most of her decisions. She audits classes at NYU but doesn’t actually enroll or take any of the classes for credit. She works as a maid, off the books, simply to have something to do with her time.
“Restoring order to other people’s lives makes her own feel less confusing.”
Sax, her boyfriend, is thirty years her senior, and while her family urges her to consider her own future, she can’t bear to leave him. The relationship they build together is built on a very solid love. I actually really liked how Leventhal portrayed their love, because it isn’t unhealthy or weird. They both have the same insecurities we all have. Fears of the other not loving them as much. Fear of being abandoned, hurt, left. She becomes dependent on him, but not in a controlled way. It is more her lack of definition of her own ambitions that creates the reliance.
“She is a stranger to herself, just as her mother was a stranger to her.”
This notion that she must find herself drives Karla forward to discover more about the photo she found under her mother’s bed. If these people are her family, she feels that she needs to find them. All her life she has believed herself to be a Jewish woman whose mother survived the Holocaust. But the more she unravels about her mother, the more she realizes, it was all a terrible lie. Her life, her childhood, her identity has all been built on a house of lies. So, what does that make her?
“If she is going to uncover the secret to her own identity, she will have to face exactly where she came from.”
While going on Karla’s journey, I found it easy to relate to her struggle. Who are we? It is a question countless philosophers and psychologists have dedicated careers into exploring. Are we our parent’s children, destined to live lives dictated by the terms they laid out as they raised us? Or are we something more? Something pliant and resilient that can forge our own paths regardless of the foundation of our past?
Even more than the idea of self-discovery, this novel is also about forgiveness. Karla needs to find a way to forgive her mother. Not just for the discovered horror of a lie that seems incomprehensible, but for the childhood she was subjected to. We even face the notion of forgiveness on monumental levels as Karla has to face her German ancestry and forgive the ghosts of their collective past.
As Karla unravels more of her mother, she discovers more about herself. The black that was oppressive and odd, becomes an armor for Karla. A habit she can’t quite give up yet. The quirks and weird lessons in life, the strange and untethered lifestyle they led was less about control and more about teaching Karla how to really live.
“With her warm, stolid body and her sharp surveillance, Mutti, for all her craziness, had seen to it that no one crushed her kid’s spirit. She had fueled Karla’s passion to live.”
Taking the extreme’s out of the story, we all enter our adult lives deciding who we are, who we want to be. We face the idea of becoming our parent’s and of never becoming them. The questions Karla faces are questions we have all faced, on some level, at some point in our lives.
The layers of themes wrapped in Karla’s journey makes this novel easy for people to relate to on many different levels. We don’t need to have crazy mother’s, or eccentric childhoods, or wealthy grandparents to identify with Karla and her struggle with her identity. We don’t need to have a mother who lied about surviving the Holocaust to understand the horror that truth would bring. We don’t need to have German relatives who also lived through that time to feel the confusion and the guilt that experience brings.
I think that many women feel that the feminist revolution that our mothers and grandmothers before them began, has never really ended. It has evolved, each progressive step forward revealing more obstacles that were never thought about. In this sense, life is more about the evolution of a journey rather than the destination, so I think that all women can identify with the struggle to find yourself as a woman, a daughter, a spouse, a mother, within a world that can be both liberating and oppressive at the same time. The specific details of Karla’s struggle may have changed, but the feelings within that struggle are similar.
The final piece that Leventhal wove into the novel that I think plays to a journey of discovery is art. It is through art that Karla meets Sax, and it is art that she identifies with the most. There is something timeless and yet something fluid in art. It can be an expression of the past and a window into the future. The way specific paintings influence and form indelible impressions on Karla is similar to how any passion finds it’s way into our bones. We find ourselves by finding the things that inspire and move us. I really liked the way art was used to show difficulty and passion throughout the novel and with the characters.
I enjoyed the book. I think that the topics for discussion are in depth and very dimensional. Among The Survivors is perfect for a book club that like to pop open a bottle (or two) of wine and really dive deep into discussions. There is heart and soul and a very profound humanness written into each character that I think can provide many hours of dissection and contemplation.
Thank you BookSparks for sending me the book to read and review as part of your pop up blog tours.