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Love and Treasure
by Ayelet Waldman

Published: 2014-04-01
Hardcover : 352 pages
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A spellbinding new novel of contraband masterpieces, tragic love, and the unexpected legacies of forgotten crimes, Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Treasure weaves a tale around the fascinating, true history of the Hungarian Gold Train in the Second World War.

In 1945 on the outskirts of ...
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A spellbinding new novel of contraband masterpieces, tragic love, and the unexpected legacies of forgotten crimes, Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Treasure weaves a tale around the fascinating, true history of the Hungarian Gold Train in the Second World War.

In 1945 on the outskirts of Salzburg, victorious American soldiers capture a train filled with unspeakable riches: piles of fine gold watches; mountains of fur coats; crates filled with wedding rings, silver picture frames, family heirlooms, and Shabbat candlesticks passed down through generations. Jack Wiseman, a tough, smart New York Jew, is the lieutenant charged with guarding this treasure—a responsibility that grows more complicated when he meets Ilona, a fierce, beautiful Hungarian who has lost everything in the ravages of the Holocaust. Seventy years later, amid the shadowy world of art dealers who profit off the sins of previous generations, Jack gives a necklace to his granddaughter, Natalie Stein, and charges her with searching for an unknown woman—a woman whose portrait and fate come to haunt Natalie, a woman whose secret may help Natalie to understand the guilt her grandfather will take to his grave and to find a way out of the mess she has made of her own life.

A story of brilliantly drawn characters—a suave and shady art historian, a delusive and infatuated Freudian, a family of singing circus dwarfs fallen into the clutches of Josef Mengele, and desperate lovers facing choices that will tear them apart—Love and Treasure is Ayelet Waldman’s finest novel to date: a sad, funny, richly detailed work that poses hard questions about the value of precious things in a time when life itself has no value, and about the slenderest of chains that can bind us to the griefs and passions of the past. 

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Discussion Questions

1. Love and Treasure is a novel that illuminates the shifting nature of identity. In the beginning of the novel, Jack Wiseman is described as a New York Jew whose father’s parents are of “authentic German Jewish stock,” (18) yet he feels a struggle to connect with both his American soldiers and the European Jews he encounters. How does Jack’s definition of himself change over the course of the novel? How do Jack’s fellow soldiers view him? The Hungarian civilians? What does this say about the how cultural heritage is assigned or interpreted?

2. On page 12, Jack admits that for many years the “contents of the pouch had been kind of an obsession” to him. In what ways does his granddaughter internalize this obsession and make it her own? What drives Natalie’s quest? Did Jack send her on this mission out of duty to the owner, or to renew the “glimmer of interest” in his granddaughter that had been destroyed by her divorce? Both?

3. When Jack first meets Ilona, he declares that she is all “wire and sparks” (page 29). How does her presence help Jack to better understand his identity as a Jew? As an American? How does she challenge his views about the war or its aftermath?

4. Throughout the novel, Jack is caught up between his duty to country (in maintaining his position of watching over the train) and his duty to the people of Hungary (in trying to ensure that the goods are returned to their rightful owners). How do these two missions conflict with one another?

5. Chart Jack’s view of the military over the course of the novel, taking into account his interactions with his fellow American soldiers. Does he relate to any of the soldiers? If so, who? Discuss his conversation with Lieutenant Hoyle at the bar after his breakup with Ilona. How did you interpret the violence at the end of this encounter?

6. Jack’s encounters with Yuval give him a more fully realized understanding of the political situation facing the Jews of Europe. What is Jack’s mindset going into the trip of smuggling the refugees? What are his feelings towards the group’s goal by the end of the mission? How does this encounter challenge his understanding of nationalism?

7. Ilona and Natalie are both described to physically resemble one another, both having fiery red hair. Is the author’s choice to have the two women share this trait purposeful? What other characteristics, if any, do the two women share?

8. On page 139, Natalie struggles to admit to Amitai that the pendant is stolen, instead saying her grandfather “found” it during the occupation. Why does she stumble over these words? What does this this hesitation say about the definition of discovery? Of ownership? How are these problems echoed throughout the novel? How is it reflected in the world of stolen paintings that Amitai deals in?

9. Compare and contrast the failed marriages of Amitai and Natalie. How do their failed marriages prepare them for meeting one another? Discuss the symbolism of Natalie wearing the pendant to her wedding to David.

10. Why is Amitai hesitant to share his military past with Natalie? What other “sins of omission” occur throughout the novel? (156)

11. Amitai is Israeli but he craves “the anonymity of the immigrant, to be a man with a vague accent in a city of vague accents” (176). How does this desire for erasure contrast with Natalie’s desire to understand her cultural heritage? How do their respective homelands encourage or complicate those desires?

12. When Natalie Stein becomes Natalie Kennedy, she meaningfully disrupts the established script for her behavior. What does this say about the fluidity of identity? How does this transgression embolden her?

13. On page 221, the pendant is returned to as close to its rightful heir as possible. What was your reaction to Dalia’s request to get the necklace appraised? What does her indifference to the physical object say about the dilution of history over time? Of personal connection to the Holocaust? To kin?

14. On pages 224-225, Natalie and Amitai fill out Page of Testimony for Komlos, Gizella Weisz, and Nina Einhorn. What is the significance of this act?

15. The events of Section Three are narrated from the perspective of a Freudian analyst, Dr. Zobel. Why do you think the author to choose to include this point of view? Is he reliable as a narrator? What textual evidence exists to challenge his objectivity? What does his position assert about validity of historical retelling?

16. Gizella and Nina are introduced as strong-willed women who are ahead their time: Nina dreams of medical school, and Gizella is active in radical politics. What challenges do these early feminists face, both from their countrymen and from their families? Why do you think Zobel seeks them out years later?

17. Stealing occurs throughout the novel: Jack pockets the pendant; the American soldiers freely “shop” from the gold train; Natalie lifts the painting; Amitai deals in the world of stolen paintings. How do the motivations for these acts differ? Who is morally “right” in their actions? What does the novel as a whole assert about ownership?

18. Love and Treasure is a novel that weaves together intricate plotlines amongst stunning character portraits, bringing to life a historical event with fictitious details. Yet as the history unravels, gaps emerge and often destabilize a clear narrative from developing. What does this assert about memory, both collective and personal? About how history is interpreted or reinterpreted over time?

Suggested by Members

Stories connected to the Holocaust remain fertile ground for authors. What unique perspective or knowledge did the author contribute to this body of stories?
How much of the story is driven by the author's own experience? Which character is most like Ayelet?
by Marydean (see profile) 07/16/14

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

"Absorbing . . . A compelling meditation on love, missed connections and the pull of history on the present. . . well-written and entertaining."

—Kevin Nance, USA TODAY

"Ambitious . . . The eternal human struggle for self-determination and dignity pulses throughout."

—Robin Micheli, People Magazine

"Love and Treasure is a well-researched tale that unfolds in three intertwining stories set in 1913 Budapest, post-World War II Austria, and present-day Maine. . . Waldman, a student of the Holocaust and its aftermath, draws from historical fact to create these multigenerational tales that reveal clues to the reader the way a locket exposes a hidden image. With Love and Treasure, she has carefully crafted a work that measures memory against oblivion, value against wealth, and legacy against possession."

—Abbe Wright, O Magazine

"Love and Treasure places the Hungarian Gold Train at the heart of a multigenerational tale. . . Crucial to its plot is an enameled pendant, intricately worked in the design of a peacock, unusually colored in purple, white and green. Waldman skillfully interweaves this striking and enigmatic object—a symbol, as the book progresses, of fatal bad luck—into an ambitious sweep of history, setting the loss of millions of human lives against the pendant's own poignant, improbably survival. . . In the novel's final, twisty section, Waldman has great fun with the narrative of a pompous, libidinous psychoanalyst in seemingly idyllic, assimilated, pre-World War I Budapest. . . Waldman sustains her multiple plot lines with breathless confidence and descriptive panache, fashioning complex personalities caught up in an inexorable series of events. . . Powerful."

—Catherine Taylor, The New York Times Book Review

"Waldman is a wonderfully imaginative writer . . . absorbing . . . As with the painting in Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue and the manuscript in Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book the link between these separate stories in Love and Treasure is a pendant decorated with the picture of a peacock. In Waldman’s exceedingly clever treatment, this piece of jewelry is not intrinsically valuable; it accrues value only as it passes from one unlikely hand to another, demonstrating the curious and tragic ways that history binds us together. . . a tense and romantic story that never seems polemical or overdetermined. . . a marvelous panorama of early 20th-century attitudes about women . . . Moving."

—Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

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by Amy P. (see profile) 05/18/17

  "love and treasure"by Barbara H. (see profile) 06/17/16

by Catherine C. (see profile) 05/27/15

  "Love and Treasure"by Miriam S. (see profile) 11/17/14

I read 83 pages and couldn't get any further. I didn't like the writing style, which included the use of big words for no particular reason. The story did not catch my attention and keep it. I don't... (read more)

by Pat S. (see profile) 07/21/14

by Holly B. (see profile) 07/17/14

  "Love and Treasure"by Mary-Dean B. (see profile) 07/16/14

This was a book that everyone enjoyed ready, although to different degrees. The novel is three related stories and a good part of the discussion was the "favorite' story and why. The ultimate question... (read more)

by Elaine G. (see profile) 06/10/14

by Pauline H. (see profile) 06/03/14

by Stacy D. (see profile) 05/01/14

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