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All Things That Deserve To Perish: A Novel of Wilhelmine Germany
Dana Mack, author
The year is 1896, and Elisabeth ('Lisi') von Schwabacher, the gifted daughter of a Jewish banker, returns home to Berlin from piano study in Vienna. Though her thoughts are far from matrimony, she is pursued by two noblemen impressed as much by her stunning wealth as by her prodigious intellect and musical talent. Awakened to sudden improvements in the opportunities open to women, Lisi balks at her mother's expectation that she will contract a suitable bourgeois marriage, and settle down to a life as a wife and mother. In a bid to emancipate herself once and for all from that unwelcome fate, she resolves to have an affair with one of her aristocratic suitors -- an escapade that, given her rigid social milieu, has tragic consequences for both her and her family. All Things That Deserve to Perish is a novel that penetrates the constrained condition of women in Wilhelmine Germany, as well as the particular social challenges faced by German Jews, who suffered invidious discrimination long before Hitler's seizure of power. It is also a compassionate rumination on the distractions of sexual love, and the often unbearable strains of a life devoted to art.
Mack’s (The Assault on Parenthood) vivid and incisive historical novel, set in Germany and Austria in the 1890s, finds a Jewish pianist and heiress, Elisabeth von Schwabacher, caught between the promise of new freedoms for women in the coming century and the persistent expectations of her class, all as a socially acceptable anti-Semitism simmers around her. A pair of noble suitors vie for Elisabeth’s hand in marriage , yet she’s not eager to wed, fearing the loss of her freedom or the men’s intentions. Still, she’s not immune to passion, and amid a glittering milieu of balls and royalty, Elisabeth surprises herself—and a paramour—with a bold request: “Would you make me your mistress?”

The fallout comes quickly, though Mack proves more invested in examining the characters’ milieu and attitudes than in dramatizing each beat of this promising melodrama. A vicious postcoital eruption between the lovers gets rapidly summarized, without inviting readers too far into Elisabeth’s head or heart, and much of the subsequent storytelling is epistolary, as Elisabeth and company pen artful, engaging letters. Those circumspect missives invite readers to guess at the width of the gulf between Elisabeth’s written words and actual feelings, especially once this defiantly independent woman, a musician invited to perform for Otto von Bismark himself, elects to marry.

Mack’s prose often soars, and her scenes and letters pulse with witty remarks and jolts of hard truth. Elisabeth’s promise, so brilliant in the opening pages, gets dulled away by the novel’s ending, which poses resonant questions about the limited choices that talented women have faced throughout history. The story’s power is diminished by a lack of scenes in the final third—and a lack of Elisabeth’s arresting presence—though there is some thematic weight in the choice. It’s as if, in the end, as she’s swallowed by a conventional life, Elisabeth’s lost to the reader, too. But readers invested in the milieu or in historic domestic tragedy will find much to relish.

Takeaway: Lovers of historic fiction may savor this evocative novel of a woman’s romances and ambitions in 19th century Germany

Great for fans of: Irmgard Keun’s The Artificial Silk Girl, Miklós Bánffy’s The Transylvanian Trilogy, George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: A-

Kirkus Reviews

Lisi is a character worthy of Edith Wharton...  A rich tale set in the underexplored Wilhelmine Germany