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The Puzzle King Hardcover – August 25, 2009

4.0 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Carter (Swim to Me) mines her family history in this underwhelming novel that examines the lives and loves of Jewish immigrants in early 20th-century New York. Nine-year-old Simon Phelps is sent by his mother from Lithuania to America, where he grows up poor but ambitious on the Lower East Side. He meets German-born Flora Grossman, and their marriage and ascent into American success forms the linchpin for the familiar tales of immigrants vacillating between the New World and the Old. The interwoven stories of Flora and her sisters—Seema, the kept mistress of a WASP banker, and the somber Margot, who endures an austere life in post-WWI Germany—highlight the different paths for German-Jewish women. Meanwhile, Simon's booming career in the advertising world is tempered by the grief he feels as he searches for his lost family, though his success enables him to plan a bold mission of salvation. Unfortunately, the narrative, while admirable in scope, feels too beholden to its source material, with the remote, speculative tone making this often feel more like a historian's work than a novelist's. (Aug.)
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Review

“Skillfully using ties to her own family, Carter weaves a compelling story and  a rich, multilayered novel around three Jewish sisters and deftly captures the squalor and bustle of early 20th century New York . . . A fine novel with twists and turns and pieces that interlock tightly . . . Carter at her best.”  —The Miami Herald
(The Louisville Courier-Journal)

“Skillfully using ties to her own family, Carter weaves a compelling story and  a rich, multilayered novel around three Jewish sisters and deftly captures the squalor and bustle of early 20th century New York . . . A fine novel with twists and turns and pieces that interlock tightly . . . Carter at her best.” --The Miami Herald
(San Francisco Book Review)

"Everybody loves an inspiring rags-to-riches story, and The Puzzle King delivers that in spades . . . [it tells] the immigrant story from a uniquely relationship-and family-based perspective, all the while honoring their bravery and stoicism in the face of great odds.” --San Francisco Book Review
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books; First Edition edition (August 25, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565125940
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565125940
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,366,566 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jean Seligmann on August 13, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Betsy Carter has achieved something remarkable with her third novel; although the background of the story is the Gathering Storm for Jews in Germany during the 1930s, the foreground is the absorbing, full-of-wonders story of an American Jewish family that is based on the author's own forebears. Prodigiously researched and rich in the details of New York daily life in the early decades of the 20th century (it's comforting and thrilling to encounter icons like the "new" Yankee Stadium and the Metropolitan Museum of Art), the book starts with the story of 9-year-old Simon Phelps, who emigrates from Lithuania to New York in 1892, bringing along only a pad and some crayons. As a young man, he meets and marries the beautiful Flora Grossman, a character based on Carter's own great-aunt Flora. With his artistic brilliance and determination, Simon is dubbed America's Puzzle King, who makes a fortune inventing and producing the first mass-marketable cardboard jigsaw puzzles. That too, really happened to Carter's great-uncle, but nearly all the other characters are fictional, like Flora's slinky sister Seema (called "Seamless" by a boyfriend), who collects beaux--and crosses. You know from the book's brief prologue that Flora will become an unlikely heroine (as the real Flora did), with the help of Simon's careful planning and extraordinary generosity. But Carter has also fashioned a diverting and suspenseful saga of the years leading up to 1936, moving back and forth from the Phelpses' affluent life in Yonkers, New York, to the struggles of Flora's family back in Kaiserslautern, Germany.
Talk about seamless. Carter has woven a tapestry of real and imagined people and events so skillfully that there are no loose strands. Her book contains all the drama, color and dreams of the best stories---but also the drumbeat of history and the throbbing pulse of real life. Highly recommended!
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This was one of the best books I've read in years. Ms. Carter's language is rich in visual metaphor, and the plot is fascinating from beginning to end. I looked forward to sitting down to read the book every day. It brought tears to my eyes and deep joy to my heart. One of my new favorite books!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I liked this book because it was a new story about the Holocaust that I had not heard before. The book starts out great and the characters are wonderful, but about 3/4 of the way through it losses steam and there are a lot of loose ends at the ending because you never find out what happens to some of the main characters which was disappointing.

The larger point of the book was the history lesson and the fact that people were saved and I understand that. It would have made a great non-fiction. I'm wouldn't read it again, but I'm glad I now know about the story.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book had potential but it will not go down as one of my favorites. It started out strong but progressed so quickly through characters' lives that the superficiality of characters resulted in a lack of commitment to read on my part. I usually get sucked into a book but I just couldn't with this one. The ending was abrupt and the author just sort of ran out of things to say about the characters so she stopped talking about them. It resulted in a lack of resolution for the majority of the characters and the story overall. <Eve McLain>
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Format: Kindle Edition
I loved this book. Ms. Carter wrote a wonderful story,. The characters were realistic, very human and they all kept my attention. I enjoyed finding out that although this was a work of fiction, it was based in part on her own family's experiences prior to World War II. I look forward to reading Ms. Carter's books.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"The Puzzle King" is a novel based on factual events that occurred within a family prior to World War II. Simon, a Lithuanian-born Jew, comes to the lower East Side of New York in the early years of the 20th century and makes his way - with great perseverance - to a career in the
world of commercial design. He meets and marries, Flora, a German-Jewish immigrant and they establish life in a suburb of NYC. As events in Europe during the early 1930s begin to demonstrate a gathering threat to the members of Flora's large family living in Germany, the now-Americanized couple becomes more and more aware of the certain doom that faces these people. Their responses and behavior, to each other and to the dilemma facing their relatives, make for an often touching and always fully absorbing narrative.It's an informative story told in a highly accessible and often even amusing style; this reader was fully engaged and often quite moved.The book contains an unspoken element of timeliness in that, in an entirely individualist way, it conveys the importance of speaking out and acting when world events have gone completely awry. The story of this man and woman and their action are the astonishing personifications of this idea.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Thanks to the gift of her imagination, Betsy Carter has turned a tale from her own history into a fully-faceted story of family devotion spanning two continents and forty years. Lovers of historical novels, especially those that explore the immigrant experience and the years leading up to the Holocuast, will be drawn in by the rich detail of Carter's research, particularly as she brings to life the everyday world of a boy who arrives in the United States alone and lonely, yet through talent and grit, turns himself into "the puzzle king." This boy, in fact, has been modeled after Carter's own great-uncle.

This is a subtle yet powerful book, with likable characters who respoect one another and rarely shout--even when, say, their sister may be endangering her own life. The portrayal of Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, when the seeds of Nazism are taking root, is especially poignant, and give a reader honest answers to the question of "why didn't every Jew leave?"
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