When discussion of Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time exploded on Twitter last week, I was pretty quick to express both my dismay at the book’s premise and my confusion over how such a book could be published in the first place. I also stated that I didn’t see how it would be possible for RWA (Romance Writers of America) to prevent a book like this from being a finalist in its published book contest, known as the Rita. (This book finaled both in inspirational romance and best first book, for those not in the know.) Given the fact that the book had not only received high enough scores from five judges to final in the Rita but had also been highly praised by both Romantic Times (a Top Pick) and Library Journal (a starred review), I had to believe it had some redeeming qualities and determined to read it for myself. I finished this afternoon.
I can safely say this is the worst book I have ever finished. If I hadn’t been committed to the cause of getting all the way through, I wouldn’t have gotten past the first few pages. And if it hadn’t been for the group of thoughtful reviewers and authors organized by Kelly Instalove who were reading it at the same time, I’m fairly certain I’d have given up well before the halfway mark. That said, I am glad that I read it all the way through because doing so allowed me to see that most of my initial, knee-jerk reactions based on the premise were reactions to the wrong problem.
Don’t misunderstand–the basic premise (Jewish internment camp prisoner falls in love and lives HEA w/camp’s Kommandant) is objectionable enough on its own. But I decided to go into the book with an open mind (or at least as close to open as possible). I have rather fond memories of Summer of My German Soldier, and even though I have a hard time thinking of an SS officer as someone conscripted into the war against his will and convictions, I was willing to believe that, in the hands of a competent author, I could buy in.
But Breslin is not a competent author, IMO. Or at least, she’s not a competent author for this book. This isn’t a well executed book that’s tackling difficult subjects; instead, it’s a poorly executed book that goes out of its way to AVOID difficult subjects. Having chosen such an incredibly challenging setting and premise for a romance, Breslin then ducks that challenge at every turn.
What do I mean?
Well, first and foremost, when it comes to the romance, why use this particular setup for a romance if NOT to explore the question of consent? Yet NO ONE in this book EVER seems to consider whether or not Stella/Hadassah is able to consent to a relationship with Aric. The whole question is simply ignored by everyone, including Stella herself. As readers, I think we are supposed to feel that since Stella is attracted to Aric and he’s so much “better” than the other Nazis, she has the agency to fall in love with him and choose whether or not to have a relationship. The fact that she refuses to be his mistress so he determines to marry her is, I guess, supposed to be further evidence that she’s not being forced into anything. But it’s all ENTIRELY ducking the issue. If you’re going to “go there” as an author, go all in. Embrace the challenge you’ve set for yourself. Especially if you’re going to open the book with a scene that reads like something out of a contemporary erotic romance where the submissive meets her fated Dom. (Don’t get me started on how Breslin hits you over the head with the fact that they ARE fated mates because .)
The next “avoidance” comes in the form of Breslin’s complete failure to write Jewish characters who think or speak like Jewish people. This isn’t just important because of the erasure issue. It’s important because doing this artificially narrows the cultural and religious gap between Stella and Aric. The addition of the Magic Bible–which belonged to Aric’s mother–further closes that gulf…at the expense of Stella having any actual Jewish identity. And of course, it’s not just Stella who thinks/speaks unJewishly. None of the Jewish characters come across as authentically Jewish. Everyone in this book is effectively Christian, except, of course, for the Bad Nazis™.
The third and most horrible avoidance is, of course, the “escape” from Theresienstadt and the subsequent imaginary humiliation of Eichmann and Himmler when the Red Cross delegation arrives. This isn’t just bad because it’s rewriting history so her characters can get their HEA; it’s bad because it’s once again avoiding the difficult reality of what lay at the end of those train trips. (By the way, can I say the train chases/fight scene reminded me less of Indiana Jones and more of Captain America? Hadassah dangles from the train a la Bucky, except she doesn’t fall to her presumptive death.) It’s pretending there was some “Jewish victory” in WWII. The opening of Chapter 50 all but announces this. But that just ain’t so and it minimizes the tragedy of what actually happened to the people who boarded those trains. And all so our hero and heroine can walk off into the soft-focus sunset. It’s really rage-inducing.
Beyond all of that, the book is written in a turgid, heavy-handed style that is trying to be literary but that quickly wears out its welcome. The characterization is, across the board, inconsistent and vacuous, with the villains straight out of a comic book. (Actually, comic book villains are usually better elucidated and motivated.) The symbolism is repetitive and obvious. The book relies on some standard romance conventions that I’ve always found disturbing–most particularly, the use of “everyone wants to rape the heroine” was evidence of her beauty/desirability. And finally, the romance itself is utterly superficial, based entirely on insta-lust that never convincingly matures to anything else.
I want to add here, by the way, that there is no explicit conversion or “come to Jesus” moment at the end of the book–of either the hero or the heroine. The hero doesn’t experience any religious conviction that convinces him to save the Jews under his authority; he mostly does it because they’re the heroine’s “people” and he loves her, so he’ll save them for her sake. It’s not particularly heroic nor is it redemptive arc. (He also actually asks these people for forgiveness. I cannot get over how wrong it is to ask for forgiveness from people whose family and friends you’ve genocidally murdered.) And Hadassah never in any way clearly converts to Christianity, but there’s really no necessity, either. She never reads as anything but a Christian, just one who apparently hasn’t yet got the word on pork and the resurrection. Having already minimized the difference between Christianity and Judaism to diet and a miracle, Breslin doesn’t have any need for an explicit conversion.
For Such a Time is really a bad book that should never have been published, but not entirely for the reasons I thought it was, and I’m glad I read it because I want to be able to criticize it for the right ones.