Hotel Sacher by Rodica Doehnert

Set in Austria & Germany at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

In the exclusive Hotel Sacher in Vienna, the proprietor Eduard Sacher is dying. His wife Anna is doing what she sees as her wifely duty by checking on her husband from time to time and seeing that the hotel is running as smoothly as the guests expect. She hopes to continue managing the hotel after her husband’s passing and feels she is fully capable of doing so. Her father-in-law who is in retirement, arrives and tells her he has other plans. He wants to sell the hotel, and cannot imagine that Anna – a woman and mother of young children – can run the hotel properly.

Two couples arrive that same night. Maximilian and Martha Aderhold from Berlin are on their honeymoon. They have come to Vienna to find authors for their new publishing house. The second couple is Prince Georg von Traunstein and Princess Konstanze. Their six-month-old marriage is not a love match but one of mutual benefit, she having Money and he having a Name. These two couples along with the disappearance of a young employee of the hotel provide a web of plots that are intertwined. The Sacher Hotel is the hub against which the pivotal events of their lives are played out.

Two other unusual characters deserve a mention: Love and Death. As soon as I read in the prologue of Love taking a seat in the foyer and Death climbing a rear wall of the hotel, I was hooked. And inevitably I said to myself: I wish I had thought of that.

Through the author’s deft writing we see romance, politics, war, infidelity, tragedy, some happy endings, some not so happy. We see women’s tottering steps at self-reliance and the tremendous strength it takes to remain independent and the many aspects of love. The plot is character-driven and the characters are believable, true to themselves. The author plays out the story line skilfully and subtly. To summarize, the book is brim-full of interest.

I have one caveat. There is quite a long list of characters, and the narrative hopped about between them in, sometimes, short segments. Since most of the characters are fictional, I think some of these sections could have been combined in a longer sequence. It would have made the story flow better.

Even so, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, one of the best I have read in a long time, and I recommend it for anyone who fancies something different.

Anna Sacher and her children were real people, and the Sacher Hotel still exists today. I was in Vienna five years ago on one of those self-indulgent/research jaunts, but I never saw the hotel. If I had, I might have popped in for a cup of tea and a slice of the famous Sachertorte, a chocolate cake created by Anna’s father-in-law. There is a recipe for it at the beginning of the book.

****

How Dare the Birds Sing by Marina Osipova

A wartime romance set in Russia and Germany

Fifteen years after the end of World War I and just as Hitler was coming to power, Lyuba and Natasha are walking in a park and meet two men who are enrolled at the flying school. Gunter is German and Germans are still disliked and mistrusted in Russia. Lyuba falls in love with him, although she feels a strong attraction toward his friend, Stepan. One day Gunter is gone. Lyuba assumes he has been called back to Germany but he left with no explanation and she feels betrayed. With Gunter out of the way, Stepan drugs Lyuba, forces sex on her, and then compels her to marry him to protect her and her mother from the secret police. She spends years longing for Gunter, at the same time as trying to reconcile herself to a life with Stepan who she loathes. When World War II breaks out and the Germans invade, she has to face dangers and difficulties far worse than marriage to an unpleasant man.

Stepan has some redeeming features. He truly loves Lyuba and, other than expecting her compliance in bed, doesn’t treat her badly. And when they adopt a little girl, he proves himself a good daddy. The author does a masterful job of turning him from an arrogant brute at the beginning of the book, to a man whose motives and actions (not all of them) we can sympathise with by the end.

At the start of the story, Lyuba is a sweet, naïve seventeen year-old with a future in teaching ahead of her. But she has to learn other skills in order to survive. Throughout the war years, she is the victim of circumstances again and again, and the reader is carried along from one tense situation to another. None of those situations stretch credulity.

World War stories are not my favourite reading, but I enjoyed this one. Love, loss, tragedy, pathos – it’s all there – with plenty of action added to the mix. I was enthralled throughout. An excellent book and the author will go on my tbr list.

Highly recommended

*****

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