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Stephan Frenkel
Clara's Secret
In 1939, Clara was forced to emigrate from her city of origin, Berlin, toward an uncertain destiny. As she journeyed alone, she searched for understanding in the history of the great metropolis and turned to her collection of memories from her adolescence at the dawn of the twentieth century. This was La Belle Époque—the Beautiful Era; an extraordinary age of optimism and one of the most dramatic transformations of culture. The Prussian capital became a pivotal city that was magnetic to the greatest personalities of the age. Mark Twain, Isadora Duncan, Enrico Caruso, Richard Strauss and Theodore Roosevelt are only a few of the celebrities who Clara learned of and chanced upon. Clara’s Secret is ultimately a provocative story of the advancement of mankind and the survival of its decline.
This sweeping, beautifully written history, inspired by century-year-old autographed photographs of luminaries collected by Frenkel’s paternal grandmother, chronicles and imagines the life of Clara Prinz, a remarkable young woman who came of age during the La Belle Époque—the Beautiful Era—in Berlin at the dawn of the 20th century through the golden age of Weimar Republic, before the wars that would ravage Europe. Frenkel captures Clara’s milieu and this rare moment of peace with stunning detail and a vivid sense of the historical context, offering illuminating accounts of cafes and cabarets, operas and art, the wild print culture of a Berlin nicknamed Zeitungstadt (or “Newspaper City”), the world-changing impact of new telecommunications technology, and the headiness of a city and continent pulsing with art and ideas.

Clara stands before the Brandenburg Gate, contemplating history, architecture, and cultural progress, not knowing that within her lifetime the city will be divided by a wall—or that she and her family would have to leave, in 1939, amid the rise of fascism. But the novel’s about Clara’s era, and how her Berlin came to be, as Frenkel traces the historical currents that brought her into contact with notables of the age—the subjects of those postcards, and the book’s organizing principle. Among them are Mark Twain, Isabelle Duncan, and Richard Strauss, whose lives, work, and importance to Clara power the narrative. Included are the pictures and postcards from Clara's album, a peek into a history at its most personal.

Fans of vividly evoked history, world and familial, with the texture of everyday life will be immersed into this rich account, while enjoying snapshots in time of a young woman’s encounters with the likes of Strauss—Clara, a pianist, is embarrassed she hadn’t recognized him earlier, from the posters around the city. (The chapter about Twain, as expected, is alive with good humor.) Clara’s Secret blends cultural and personal history to reveal something rare in both: not just life as it was lived, but how it got like that, and what it all meant.

Takeaway: Rich personal and cultural history of a young woman in Berlin’s Belle Epoque.

Comparable Titles: Dominique Kalifa’s The Belle Epoque, David Lindenfeld and Suzanne Marchand’s Germany at the Fin de Siècle.

Production grades
Cover: A-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A