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The Pieces from Berlin Paperback – February 10, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

An agonizing moral issue beats at the heart of this searching novel about individual survival at the cost of complicity with evil. Based on the case of a real woman, Pye's narrative examines the shady life of fictional Lucia Muller-Ross, who spirited vanloads of valuable antiques entrusted to her by their Jewish owners out of Berlin and into Switzerland at the end of WWII. Sixty years later, Lucia is the elderly, proud and respected owner of an antiques shop in Zurich, when Sarah Freeman, a Holocaust survivor, spies in the store's window a table she once owned. Sarah's anguished need for emotional restitution sparks a tragic upheaval in Lucia's family. Lucia's son, Nicholas, a middle-aged professor and historian, has never allowed himself to think about his mother's murky past. Lucia's granddaughter, Helen, who has been unaware of the accusations leveled against her grandmother in a postwar court case in which she was acquitted, now feels a compulsion to bring Lucia to justice. Pye's (The Drowning Room) taut, restrained prose eschews melodrama, though flashbacks to the nights when Berlin was pounded by Allied bombing are vividly rendered. In the book's most harrowing scene, "the blast bombs [were]: timpani and fire... the sky was all neon," as nine-year-old Nicholas, alone in Lucia's apartment, watches the city die. Despite Pye's control, he leans too heavily on the repetition of "anger" and "rage" to describe the characters' inner emotions. An Englishman who becomes Sarah's friend, meant to provide another perspective on wartime moral ambiguity, is more a device than a rounded character. Yet the tension mounts, and the last few chapters reveal the terrible price Lucia paid for her amoral (but perhaps excusable?) behavior. In the end, this penetrating psychological study reverberates with an urgent message: life consists of choices, and all have long-lasting consequences.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

When Sarah Freeman passes a Zurich antiques shop owned by Lucia Muller-Rossi and spies an inlaid table that she and her husband had owned in pre-World War II Berlin, a window is opened on crimes half a century old. In the early 1940s, Muller-Rossi, Italian by birth and married to a Swiss, is in Berlin with her young son, Nicholas, living by her wits, trading sex or whatever else for privilege. Her outsider status gives her a degree of freedom not enjoyed by most Berliners, and she assists her Jewish acquaintances in hiding their belongings or getting them out of the country. As Berlin crumbles beneath the Allied Powers' bombing, she leaves for Switzerland with eight truckloads of goods, making her fortune by selling the art and antiques of owners who will never return. Even at a remove of 50 years, the sudden revelation of truth profoundly affects Lucia, Nicholas, Sarah, and those around them. The effect is not quite so powerful for the reader, who can sense the writer's shaping of the story. But that is not to say that this book is simply a stylistic tour de force. A beautifully crafted and finely nuanced tale of guilt and moral complicity, it possesses a psychological depth that sets it apart from other novels dealing with the Holocaust. Recommended for public libraries.
Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (February 10, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375714162
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375714160
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,280,810 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 26, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Having read the tepid review in the New York Times, I was anxious to decide for myself. While the framework of the plot is certainly beguiling, the story moves at such a languid pace I was anxious to read further in the hope that the story might gain some momentum. The frequent asides, and constant change of subject, is not what one expects in a novel. I often finished a paragraph wanting more. The exposition of the characters is incomplete and I fet that I didn't really get to know anyone well except for Lucia, the protagonist. Moreover, anachronistic inventions should never be used since they detract from the plausibility of the story. For instance, the reference to the use of plastic dishes in a Berlin hotel in 1943, or the reference to attempts at CPR (modern day cardiopulmonary resescitation) in London, circa 1945. All in all, a disappointing read. Other books tackling the same subject are much more gripping.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Glenn Miller on April 13, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Pye has written a beautiful book about a flawed person, Lucia Muller-Rossi. This 92-year-old matriarch, living in Zurich, made out extremely well during World War II, not only stealing (or "saving", as she rationalizes) antiques and art pieces from Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but also informing the Nazis on the whereabouts of her Jewish friends. Toward the end of the war, when Berlin was about to fall, Muller-Rossi was able to take these possessions out of Berlin in several large trucks, cross the border into Switzerland, and set up shop. The book's action is built around two hard-to-believe coincidences. First, that one of her victims happens to walk past Muller-Rossi's store window and recognize a table that had been taken from her 60 years earlier. Second, that right at that moment when the victim, Sarah Freeman, spots the table, Muller-Rossi's granddaughter walks by, sees Freeman crying, and asks what's wrong. Seemingly implausible, but I bought it. What I struggled with was why Muller-Rossi's granddaughter, Helen, and son -- Helen's father, Nicholas -- were so willing to side with Freeman at the expense of Muller-Rossi. We simply had to take this leap that son and granddaughter were willing to accept a stranger's story without giving Lucia a chance to explain her side of events. As a reader of a novel, we did get a sense of Lucia's side, but unfortunately, there wasn't much to like. She was, plain and simple, an opportunist without much of a decent bone in her body, mother of a young son during wartime or not. Although Pye's writing and evocation of time and place is splendid, the book would ultimately have been more powerful if Muller-Rossi had been created as a more sympathetic character. One of Pye's key points is that life can be quite grey. Unfortunately, his main character comes off as black-and-white.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Linda Oskam on October 17, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Lucia Müller-Rossi is a 90 year old antiques dealer in Zürich, Switzerland. She has a son, Nicholas, and a granddaughter, Helen, with whom she has a rather formal contact. This is due to the fact that the family has a secret: the antiques that Lucia is selling were not obtained honestly, but were given to her for storage by Berlin Jews. When one day one of her victims, Sarah Freeman, recognizes one of the tables in the antiques shop as her own, the family finally has to face the truth, which leads to a big domestic drama.
The facts on which this novel is built are of course fascinating: the trade in Jewish goods which "changed owner" illegally during the Nazi regime. Unfortunately, the story remains unclear for a long time and there are a number of story lines that have not been exploited properly: what is the role of Peter Clarke, why did Helen never before confront her grandmother with the truth and what happens in the end with the table that started it all? A missed chance, a pity.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By K. Schuller on April 15, 2004
Format: Paperback
Michael Pye's book had the surprising ability to make me think about the Holocaust in some new ways. I say surprising because this moral ground has been well traveled in literature, theater and film. In the service of remembrance, we have all read or seen a vast litany of Nazi atrocities, with the unintended and unfortunate effect of making us numb to the horror.
But Pye does a remarkable job of showing us that there is still a lot to talk about.
The character Lucia morphs from textbook villain, to misunderstood mother, to even greater villain without ever becoming a cartoon. Her actions can make the reader alternately sympathize with and abhor her.
Even more interesting are the questions of national and religious identity. Just when you think you've figured out the books moral point of view, a revelation about one of the main characters gets you thinking all over again.
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