By: Douglas Kennedy
Publication Date: May 2011
Reviewed by: Mary Lignor
Review Date: April 2011
A difficult love story lived during the Cold War days in Berlin when the Wall was still there and the East was a very dangerous place to be. There are many moments in everyone's lives. Some are tender and some are terrifying and can change our lives forever. This is the tale of a few moments in the life of Thomas Nesbitt, a writer of travel books and memoirs and an East German woman, Petra Dussman who he meets during one of his visits to Berlin to write a book.
Thomas Nesbitt is flying to West Berlin to write a book about how the country is faring following the building of the Wall separating East and West Germany. He meets a woman on the plane that had escaped into the Eastern Bloc and she told him of her harrowing time getting out. He finds an apartment to share with an English artist, Alastair Fitzsimons-Ross. They get along fine as one or the other of them is rarely there. While having a talk one morning, Thomas decided to take a walk. He tells his roommate that he might go over to the foreign country (East Germany). Alastair replies "You mean .... over there?" Alastair tells him to go have a look but, when he comes back he won't want to ever go back. So, up for an adventure, Thomas sets off for Checkpoint Charlie. When he gets there he sees the sign "You are now leaving the American Sector." He remembers the phrase "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here," the supposed inscription at the entrance to Hell. Thomas walked around East Berlin for an afternoon and was amazed at how different the two sections were, being in the same city. When he looked up and saw the gates of Checkpoint Charlie in the distance there was light but, East Berlin looked as if it had shut down for the night or forever. When he passed over into the West he looked back and the East had vanished due to snow "purifying everything, as it always does, by erasing all that we prefer not to see."
Thomas goes to meet Jerome Wellman, Director at Radio Liberty in the West to conduct an interview for an essay he is about to write for the Radio. While there, he meets translator, Petra Dussman, and, as he says, "life as I know it has just changed." He has clearly fallen for Petra; he is anxious to see her again. She will be the one love in his life that he will not be able to forget. They become inseparable and spend hours together. Petra tells him of her former life in the East and he is mortified by the stories that she tells. She has a son still living in the East that she was forced to give up for adoption. Thomas is in for some big surprises. He has to make a choice. When he does, he runs back to America.
The story now jumps ahead 26 years. When Thomas ran from Berlin he went on with his career of writing and meets the woman he finally marries. She is a lawyer with a brilliant mind of her own. They have a daughter whom they both love very much but, their love for each other leaves much to be desired. After the daughter goes to college, Jan asks for a divorce and Thomas is on the run again. This time he goes to Maine, buys a cottage and lives in solitude. He receives a package postmarked from Berlin that brings back memories from his time there and makes him remember the night of his fateful choice to come back to America. The return address is from the name Dussman.
This is a good story and sometimes moves back and forth so rapidly that you have to be alert for the changes. There are several MOMENTS in the narrative but most are told from Berlin in 1984 when it was not unified and American 2010 from two different personalities. It is a real love story that will remain with you for a very long time.
Quill Says: A wonderful perspective on why people fall in love and react to emotional MOMENTS in all different ways. A love story set in, of all places, Cold War Berlin.