Wunderland by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Wunderland

Jennifer Cody Epstein

An unflinching exploration of Nazi Germany and its legacy, Wunderland is at once a powerful portrait of an unspeakable crime history and a page-turning contemplation of womanhood, wartime, and just how far we might go in order to belong.

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USA TODAY BESTSELLER • “Searing . . . a heartbreaking page-turner.”—People (Book of the Week)

An intimate portrait of a friendship severed by history, and a sweeping saga of wartime, motherhood, and legacy by an award-winning novelist


East Village, 1989
Things had never been easy between Ava Fisher and her estranged mother Ilse. Too many questions hovered between them: Who was Ava's father? Where had Ilse been during the war? Why had she left her only child in a German orphanage during the war’s final months? But now Ilse’s ashes have arrived from Germany, and with them, a trove of unsent letters addressed to someone else unknown to Ava: Renate Bauer, a childhood friend. As her mother’s letters unfurl a dark past, Ava spirals deep into the shocking history of a woman she never truly knew.

Berlin, 1933

As the Nazi party tightens its grip on the city, Ilse and Renate find their friendship under siege—and Ilse’s increasing involvement in the Hitler Youth movement leaves them on opposing sides of the gathering storm. Then the Nuremburg Laws force Renate to confront a long-buried past, and a catastrophic betrayal is set in motion. . . . 

An unflinching exploration of Nazi Germany and its legacy, Wunderland is at once a powerful portrait of an unspeakable crime history and a page-turning contemplation of womanhood, wartime, and just how far we might go in order to belong.

Praise for Wunderland

“Engrossing . . . Epstein reveals the devastating choices these women make.”Real Simple

Wunderland is both an engrossing family drama and a foray into a dark period of history . . . a wholly original angle to the WWII novel. You’ll read it in one shivered sitting.”Refinery29

“A vividly written and stark chronicle of Nazism and its legacies.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A wealth of history turns Wunderland into a novel that’s both beautiful and devastating. . . . Epstein taps into the 1930s prewar era, laying out an unsparing narrative that details tragic events and horrifying legacies . . . opening a new door that may lead to redemption and joy for future generations.”BookPage (starred review)

“[A] heartbreaking historical tour de force . . . Man’s inhumanity to man—and the redemptive power of forgiveness—is on stark and effective display in Epstein’s gripping novel, a devastating tale bound for bestseller lists.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)


Advance Galley Reviews

Unfortunately time ran out and I never got the chance to read this book.

A story of 2 best friends torn apart by race and politics during WWII. Isle is a part of Hilter's youth movement and when Renate tries to join, she discovers that she is part Jewish. This discovery changes life for Renate and her friendship with Isle very quickly. In the present day, Ava is trying to learn about her mother, Isle, and ends up finding out something very surprising about her father that she never met. Overall, this was a great book. It had a slow start, but I really enjoyed Isle and Renate's stories from Berlin. Even though details of things that were happening during that time to Jews was hard to read at times, I kept wanting to read on to find out more. The book is told from 3 perspectives, Isle and Renate in 1933 and Ava in 1989. I don't usually prefer books that jump around from past to present, but I was able to keep up with this story. I did feel like a lot of Ava's story was hard to follow sometimes, but it came together well in the end. I give this 4 stars and would recommend it to anyone that likes historical fiction. This book has some suspense, romance and heartbreak all in one.

A well written story that I'm glad I got the chance to read. I definitely found myself enjoying it a lot. It's well paced and entertaining.

This was a wonderfully captivating story. It was written with great pace and laid out in such a way to make you keep turning pages and not wanting to stop. Love, lies and heartbreak set in such a tumultuous time.

Secrets, Love, and Betrayal in WWII In 1989 Ava receives her mother’s ashes and a packet of unsent letters. She has always had a fraught relationship with Ilse. Her mother seemed hard and distant. Ava can’t get close to her and then there’s the question of who Ava’s father was and why Ilse left her in a German orphanage for almost two years at the end of WWII. The story is told from the point of view of Ava in 1989 and Ilse in 1933. Ilse’s part of the story deals with her close friendship with Renata, who turns out to have Jewish blood, and her increasing involvement in the Hitler youth movement. Although the characters are separated by over 50 years and reside in different countries, the story line is easy to follow. The book starts slowly. At first the relationship between the main characters is unclear, but as Ilse and Renata face the terrors of life in Hitler’s Germany, the story heats up. Although I didn’t care for Ilse I could understand the pressures of her life in Germany. Ava grows through the novel. As she understands her mother better, she finds that she can in some measure forgive. If you enjoy novels with at WWII background, this is a very good one. At times it’s hard to read because of the inhumanity in Germany at the time. However, it’s worth the effort. I came to understand the era better, as did Ava. I received this book from First to Read for this review.

I found Wunderland to be well written and thought-provoking. I enjoyed seeing events unfold from the perspective of two young girls living in Berlin during that time period and how the war affected them both and their friendship. The way the book changes from each characters perspective and time period can be confusing at times but does not detract from the story itself. Overall an enjoyable read and one I would highly recommend.

I am always interested in World War II books set in Germany since they're a little bit more rare, but this one fell flat for me. It felt all over the place at times, and I think there were several chapters that could have been cut. It was a decent story, but it definitely wasn't a favorite.

"It makes me sad, sometimes, to think of how naïve we both were then. How we had no way of seeing the evenths that would roll over us both and change our lives." Wunderland is a story about friendship, about growing up without understanding how thing could change in the blink of an eye. The story is told from three diferent points of view, we have Ilse & Renate two friends torne apart by goverment laws that forbbid their friendship. Once you start their story it makes you wonder "what would you have done it you were her??" And then we have Ava, Ilse's daoughter, who is so alienated from her mother, she doesn't know much about her or her past, she doesn't understan where she came from. It is quite graphic at some parts, but just as much as any book from the WWII can be, you can't write about that period of time without at least going over some of the cruelty that many people suffered back then. It is very well writen, at the begining is quite slow and it doesn't make that much sense but just give it a couple of chapters and you will totally get it! It is worth it! For any of you who enjoy historical fiction setting on WWII I fully encourage to read Wunderland, you won't regret it!!

The book has a choppy beginning, please don’t give up on it. Author Jennifer Cody Epstein really has written an exceptional novel. One that rises so far above its subject matter that I worry readers won’t give it a chance; I almost didn’t. This is a tale of a world torn asunder, of friendships and families lost, repeatedly. Hearts broken so many times it is a wonder they still beat. It is not ‘just’ a WWII tale because that would be misleading. The ripples of that misery began long before war was declared and for Germans, and German Jews, has not yet ended. It passes like a gene through the generations and this tale captures it exquisitely. I could not put the book down and that is so rare for me to say about this topic. I share this gene and tend to avoid these tales. This one is told so well. It is an amazing and excellent book.

I enjoyed this book and how the story was unveiled. I was not confused by the change in point of view from the three main characters but I did get a bit confused as to the point of view of the daughter changing time periods, especially when I put the book down for a couple of days. But overall, I enjoyed it and showed the Jewish/German conflict during WWII from a new perspective.

Wunderland is simultaneously the story of two young friends navigating the start of World War II in Germany, and a young woman many years later learning the truth about her mother's life during the war. The story centers on the early friendship of Renate and Ilse, and the tearing apart of that relationship as Hitler rises to power and the girls are suddenly split apart due to differences in "race," and political beliefs. Ava, Ilse's daughter, later learns this story through letters written by her mother. This book has good bones, but I felt that the story got lost amongst the various narratives. The author tells the story through three separate women, and seems to jump randomly throughout their lives which leaves the overall story somewhat lacking in continuity, and, as a reader, I struggled to connect strongly with any of the characters. I really wanted to like this book, but in the end it just felt too disjointed and I was left disappointed.

this was extremely well written and hard to put down, though it took a hot minute to get to that stage - at first it was hard to get into, but then it finds its groove and i was intrigued and wanted to know what was going on. beautiful story, loved the back and forth. normally i prefer one storyline over the other in the back and forth, but i enjoyed both in this one. this was hard to put down and heartbreaking, definitely recommend and would read more from this author.

This book was just WOW. (Side note: I love that I’ve been reading so many books lately that made me go WOW.) But seriously – this book was so interesting! I honestly never thought about what it would be like to be a German teenager during the lead-up to WWII. Growing up, we [basically] learned that Germans during WWII = Nazis = bad, but that’s such a gross generalization. I never thought about those who were bullied or peer pressured or just plain scared into becoming Nazis and/or cooperating with the Gestapo. I’ve also never thought about their descendants and how WWII affected them – which is why “Wunderland” was such a compelling read. The majority of the story is told via Renate’s and Ava’s perspectives, and they really show how Ilse’s actions as a budding (then full-on) Nazi in Germany affected her best friend and her daughter/future generations. It was seriously hard to like Ilse. Granted, she was an actual Nazi, so that was understandable, but I was hoping there was at least something that would redeem her… but nope. Overall, Renate’s & Ilse’s perspectives really drove the story. It’s so interesting how the extremist Nazi propaganda and views changed peoples’ moral and societal norms. Like, it was insane how friends (best friends!) and neighbors turned on each other because suddenly they weren’t Aryan. INSANE.

I was so pleased to receive a copy of J.C. Epstein's riveting book, 'Wunderland.' The book stars of carefully and places all characters and settings in position before it picks up speed and we follow Ilse and Renate through their young lives, during the surgence of Nazi Germany on onward for the next fifty years or so and two more generations. initially best childhood friends, Ilse and Renate become re-identified as 'Aryan' and 'Jew', which in turn severs and then spins their lives in opposite directions, only crossing paths now and then to the detriment of all involved, during the sadistic, seditious, propaganda-filled era of Germany's darkest time in history. We are taken on a roller-coaster journey, back and forth in time to visit Ilse and Renate and then following generations, through letters written by Ilse to Renate, but not sent when they could have been. While I could never warm to Ilse and her idealistic self-determination, Ilse's daughter Ava is a sad and disillusioned character, who is justly so, considering her life. Renate is the true heroine, the survivor, as are all survivors and we cheer her on to the end. A gripping read with minute detail to historical occurrences and careful, intricate, elegantly written insight into the characters who make up this story, which I highly recommend.

This is a story that follows the friendship and breakup of two girls named Ilse and Renate. It also shows you the strained relationship between Ilse and her daughter Ava. The story takes place in 1989 and goes back in time to show the life of Ilse and Renate during the 30's and 40's in Germany. It's a story of a friendship ruined by politics and hatred of a people just because of their religion. Wunderland really shows how things were in the beginning of Hitler's rule. How people honestly feared and hated a whole group of people just because one man told them to. It doesn't dive too far into the horrific things that were done to the Jewish, but it does talk some about it so if that is a trigger for you be warned. I gave this book 4 out 5 stars! I loved so much about this story. The friendship between Ilse and Renate was just the best. And the fact that the friendship ended was so heartbreaking. I took one star off my rating because I really didn't find the relationship between Ilse and her daughter Ava interesting. Maybe it's because I don't have a good relationship with my own mom, but I dont know. I was wholly invested in Ilse and Renate's story. Their friendship, their lives, the breakup, just everything. The ending of the story was absolutely beautiful and I do see why Ava's perspective was brought into the story. All in all it was a great read, and I'm so glad Penguin First to Read selected me to be able to give it an early read. Definitely recommend to anyone who loves historical fiction!

Wunderland is the story of two best friends, Ilse and Renata, whose friendship is torn apart as Hitler rises to power, and the contemporary story of Ilse and her daughter, Ava. The author does a wonderful job of establishing the very close friendship of young Ilse and Renata. But when Ilse becomes more and more involved in the Hitler Youth movement, Renata learns something of her past which almost immediately ostracizes her from not only Ilse, but her other friends as well. It was difficult to read many of the horrible things done in Germany during WWII, but unfortunately these events did happen. I had more trouble following Ava's story, but Ilse did not endear herself to me as she got older. It was interesting finding out why Ilse left Ava with her grandparents at the end of the war, but there were some gaps in the years of Ava's story. The story is explained at the end and I could not put the book down for the last several chapters. It is an interesting story from the viewpoint of Renata and Ilse and later, Ava. Ilse's actions remained a mystery throughout the entire book. I was as frustrated as Ava was with Ilse. Ilse had her reasons for not telling Ava about her life, but it left Ava lonely and distant from her own daughter as well. Wunderland is a well written and compelling story. I had a little trouble following Ava's story at times, because the story jumped around in different time periods.

Wunderland is a compelling read. Two friends who are torn apart due to politics, hatred, and betrayal. The story is a little disorganized as it jumps from different eras as well as characters. I found some of the personalities to be a little wooden and stilted. I thought Ilse was repugnant and no matter her remorse what she did was reprehensible.

Wunderland tells the story in the past and present, through three women. Ava, a woman whose mother, Ilse was severely impacted by her actions during WW2. Through Renate's story, Ilse's best friend, we learn more of what happened between the two of them, and the decisions Ilse made that severely impacted Renate's life. We start off with a grown-up Ava, who has just received letters from her mother that were addressed to someone else but never sent. Ava's relationship with her mother isn't the best. She left Ava in an orphanage for a period of time, and she has always been distant. She doesn't answer questions about Ava's father or her past. Ava is hoping that through these letters, she will learn more of her mother and her past. We're not sure why Ilse chose to do anything she did until much later in the book as her story unfolds. The story is told a lot through Renate's eyes. Renate and Ilse had become fast friends but as tensions in Europe are rising, we watch their friendship start to break apart. As Renate tries to figure out her place in this world, so does Ilse, but through completely different means. Ilse turns into someone unrecognizable. In the beginning of Wunderland, I wasn't sure who exactly Ava was, it was a bit confusing tying her to the underlying story. But once I read more, the story started to pick up and things clicked into place. We learn of the things so many people took for granted, things that Jewish people could no longer do because of Hitler's reign. I love historical fiction and I think the author did a great job with the research, and with incorporating fact and fiction to make a good story.

Best friends Ilse and Renate are in betrayal during their teenage years of the mid 1930’s Germany. This betrayal, based on their Ayran vs Jewish roots, has a profound effect on the future generations of both families. Some critics have said the novel is too disjointed, so I solved that problem by reading the chapters by date. Each chapter has a heading for the story date. I began with 1933, and it made this worthy book more enjoyable for me.

While I can’t say I found Wunderland an enjoyable book - like all WWII stories, it is disturbing - it did personalize the rise of Fascism in Germany before and during the war by telling the story through the eyes of its three main characters: Renate, a girl from an educated and affluent home who finds out that she is a Mischling (half Jewish); her best friend Ilse, who becomes active in the Hitler youth movement; and Ava, the daughter born to Ilse during the war, who becomes estranged from her mother. As the story unfolds, moving between characters and between pre-war Germany and post-war time periods in New York and Germany, we learn how the first two characters were shaped by the political xenophobia of the time, and how their actions during the war effect their lives long after. An interesting read for those interested in the pre-WWll and the rise of fascism in Germany.

Two young girls sharing a beautiful friendship are torn apart by the crippling racism and cruelty of Nazi Germany. Through varied time periods the personalities, emotions and motivations of the friends are revealed and the reader learns the answers to so many questions through flashbacks and letters. The characters are deeply etched and will stay with me for a very long time. Their experiences and actions make this a novel that is not easily put down. It is one of the finest Holocaust novels I have read.

This is a well written book centered around two friends at the on set of Hitler’s influence on the German people. It emphasizes the destruction of Jewish and Aryan relationships and how quickly the German people turned on their Jewish friends and neighbors. It made the friendship between a Jewish girl and her best friend, a “true German” girl difficult and then impossible as she became more enameled with Hitler and more involved in the Nazi movement. The story has an unexpected turn at the end that I wasn’t expecting and answered many questions that came up during the book. One negative; I didn’t like how Ava’s, the daughter of the German friend, how her story went backwards in time through the chapters. It was confusing and I wasn’t always sure where I was in time. Otherwise a book worth reading

This was well written, a powerful and moving account of lives transformed by Nazi rule. I was quickly engrossed in the story of these three women. I found Ava's story to be the least compelling. Still, I sympathized with her as she struggled with PTSD and identity issues, and it was an interesting look at some of the repercussions the younger generation experienced after the conclusion of Nazi rule. Ilse was too well written, too human, for me to hate her as much as I'd expected. The progression of her story was alarming, revealing how easy it is for someone to rationalize, lie to themselves, and get swept up in ideology they should know to be wrong. I felt Ilse deserved to be miserable, but part of me pitied her. Renate's story captivated me the most as her world fell apart piece by piece. This was well done and absorbing. Thank you First to Read for the early look.

Ilse and Renate were best friends before things started to change in Germany. But with only one of them being Jewish can their relationship survive the horrors that are about to come? Years later can Ilse's daughter, Ava, find the truth to any of the secrets her mother has kept from her? I absolutely loved everything about this book. While it was a heartbreaking look at the autrosities committed before, during, and after WWII it was told in such a way that I didn't want it to ever end. A book that is on the top of my all time favorite list. A must read in my opinion!

"Wunderland" by Jennifer Cody Epstein follows three different women, Ilse and Renate in World War II Berlin and Ava in the post-war period to 1980s New York, and the secrets that impact their lives. Ilse becomes increasingly involved with the Hitler Youth movement, while Renate's discovery of her Jewish ancestry puts her on a very different path than her best friend. Meanwhile, Ava has never known who her father was and her relationship with her mother, Ilse, has been distant. After Isle's death, her unsent letters provide Ava difficult answers to her mother's past. The book does start off kind of slow and the Ava timeline was a little confusing at first, but then it really takes off. It's obviously very well researched. The book is very engaging and feels "real and gritty" between the history and the complicated relationships between friends, mothers, and daughters. Through Isle and Renate's friendship, Epstein does a fantastic job of portraying the violence and cruelty the Nazis treated Jewish people with, as well as showing how regular people could accept that ideology and viciously turn on their friends and neighbors. There are some very powerful parts in the book. At one part, Ilse is seeing a propaganda movie and the theatre bursts into "Seig Heil" salutes. As Epstein describes Ilse being caught up in the dark national pride I got chills. As for the parts with Ava, I could have gone without them. I understand why it was important to the narrative, but I just could not find myself liking Ava (or Ilse for that matter). I feel like we could have gotten a better understanding of Berlin in the post-war period in those parts, but the book never got into much depth on that. Overall it was a good, very well-written book. I have read quite a few fiction and non-fiction books on World War II Germany and this one is pretty good. It does (obviously) cover some pretty dark material and after reading "Wunderland" I definitely feel as bummed as I usually do after reading these books. So, while I liked the book, I did not "enjoy" it, if that makes sense. For those readers interested in reading more about this time period though, I would definitely recommend it.

 


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