Idea: A story within a story within a story, The Other Mrs. Samson reconstructs the lives of Ralph Webster’s friend Katie, a postwar German émigré, her husband Josef Samson, a Jewish doctor forced to flee his affluent Berlin home due to Hitler’s rise to power, and Josef’s first wife Hilda, who was raised in an atmosphere of wealth and privilege in turn-of-the-century San Francisco until love made her cross an ocean to start married life with the man she adored. Part history and part mystery, the tale unfolds in a series of different voices as Ralph, Hilda, Josef and Katie tell the tale.
Prose/Style: The book is historically very well-researched and is artfully crafted to withhold crucial plot points from the reader until the moment of revelation is right. The story reads like a mystery, and there are enough plot twists and turns to surprise the reader, who is never entirely able to anticipate where the action will go.
Originality: The Other Mrs. Samson is not a Holocaust memoir of the type that the reader may expect. Some of the mysteries the book sets up – for example, the fate of the painting that disappears en route to New York - are never cleared up, but this, if anything, only serves to enhance the narrative’s realism.
Character Development/Execution: If there is criticism to be made here, it is that the author does not make it sufficiently clear which portions of the text are taken verbatim from the writings of its principal characters – Katie, Hilda, and Josef – and which are his own fictive reconstructions based on such writings. The techniques of the “nonfiction novel” are very much in evidence, but it is left up to the reader to decide how much of this smoothly-unspooling yarn is based on first-person source material.
Date Submitted: January 21, 2021
Readers of historical fiction and biography will find The Other Mrs. Samson an attraction both for its background histories of a Jewish and a German woman and its intriguing romance as these two disparate, strong individuals become participants in a love triangle over the same man, Dr. Josef Samson.
The story opens in 2020, where the first-person narrator stumbles upon a secret while searching for furnace filters in the attic during the pandemic. A hidden compartment in a chest of drawers reveals a bundle of letters and a notebook that will shatter the narrator's perception of the past and reinvent family history in a challenging new way.
Thus begins a story that spans generations and continents as two remarkable women with a shared husband find their lives changed by war, travel, other cultures, and love.
As a nineteen-year-old narrator comes to understand Mrs. Samson's life, the scenes move backwards and forwards in time, easily identified by chapter headings.
The opening salvo of the Great War and the pulsing liveliness of Berlin before that moment are captured in descriptions that admit that the underlying political moves of the times were not a part of the narrator's perceptions: "In those early days, I was not aware of Germany’s ambitions.I did not know that the Fatherland was poised and ready, waiting for the opportune moment to strike and stake its claim to the empire. I had no knowledge of Europe’s web of secret treaties and alliances that would soon foretell such a calamitous outcome. And I most certainly would have been unable to predict that within a short time, Josef and I would join the crowd of thousands milling in the streets and massed in front of the Berliner Schloss on the first of August when we anxiously awaited Germany’s response to the answer Russia had given to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s ultimatum. That afternoon, at five o’clock, we listened soberly and in hushed silence to the official announcement that war was about to begin, and we recognized that our lives were about to be turned upside down."
This juxtaposition of daily life, interpersonal relationships and connections, and the tides of social and political change that change everything is an exceptional strength in a story that keeps interest grounded by both personal and political affairs.
Another plus is the time Ralph Webster takes to thoroughly explore these events and the broader public perceptions of the times: "France’s leaders were tired, politically divided, and still haunted by the memories of the Great War, when a generation of young men had been lost and more than four percent of France’s population killed. The French public was not in a rush to get into another war with Germany, particularly one that would be fought again on French soil. The French weren’t pacifists, but they were wary and cautious. If machine guns, artillery, and barbed wire had soaked their land with the blood of millions during the Great War, surely another war with more advanced technology and air power would be far more destructive. This time the government vowed to be prepared, but their military plan would be passive. They would be patient and wait."
The injection of a mystery, complex relationships buffeted by the winds of war and change, and a series of choices that cement the worlds of future generations are all wonderfully written, presented in a manner that will attract both historical fiction and general-interest readers alike.
The Other Mrs. Samson offers a gift of surprises, secrets, and political and social change that are often mirrored in modern times. From Katie and Joseph's unusual love to early 1900s immigration experiences in America, this sweeping epic will find a place among audiences who like their characters richly three-dimensional, powering a saga that excels in connecting different generations to a radically changing world.