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Book Review – The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

Synopsis:  Honeymooners Viktor and Liesel Landauer are filled with the optimism and cultural vibrancy of central Europe of the 1920s when they meet modernist architect Rainer von Abt. He builds for them a home to embody their exuberant faith in the future, and the Landauer House becomes an instant masterpiece.  Viktor and Liesel, a rich Jewish mogul married to a thoughtful, modern gentile, pour all of their hopes for their marriage and budding family into their stunning new home, filling it with children, friends, and a generation of artists and thinkers eager to abandon old-world European style in favor of the new and the avant-garde. But as life intervenes, their new home also brings out their most passionate desires and darkest secrets. As Viktor searches for a warmer, less challenging comfort in the arms of another woman, and Liesel turns to her wild, mischievous friend Hana for excitement, the marriage begins to show signs of strain. The radiant honesty and idealism of 1930 quickly evaporate beneath the storm clouds of World War II. As Nazi troops enter the country, the family must leave their old life behind and attempt to escape to America before Viktor’s Jewish roots draw Nazi attention, and before the family itself dissolves.

As the Landauers struggle for survival abroad, their home slips from hand to hand, from Czech to Nazi to Soviet possession and finally back to the Czechoslovak state, with new inhabitants always falling under the fervent and unrelenting influence of the Glass Room. Its crystalline perfection exerts a gravitational pull on those who know it, inspiring them, freeing them, calling them back, until the Landauers themselves are finally drawn home to where their story began.

First Line:  “Oh yes, we’re here.”

Random Quote:  “Will they invade?  They won’t invade because they won’t need to invade.”

Review:  Ponderous cliched writing and relentless, predictable foreboding doomed this read for me.  The story of the Landauers, wealthy industrialist patrons of the arts who hire an avant-garde architect to build them a modernist masterpiece of a house could have been compelling, but was somehow so pretentious that I couldn’t muster up the energy to care about either of them.  Sadly, the people that follow them in the story weren’t worth caring about for me, either.

Villa TugendhatVilla Tugendhat – Brno, Czechoslovakia – Image by LokoN Only One via Flickr

The architect in the novel is modeled after Mies van der Rohe, the house is modeled after the Tugendhat House in Brno.  There is a glass room in the house that Mawer uses as the transparent stage for all of the characters in this book that ranges over time through the Holocaust and into the next century.  The metaphor is crystal clear, but what the author does with it just wasn’t compelling for me.  I didn’t care about anyone in this book or anything that happened.  Instead, I spent most of the book pondering the modernist aesthetic in architecture, painting, and sculpture and whether or not it has held up over time.  This pondering was only loosely inspired by the book’s subject matter and, I suspect, was more likely my imagination’s way of keeping my brain occupied while I ploughed through this book.

I know that lots of people really loved this book and it was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, but for me it was torturous and awful.  I gave it two stars because the modernist aesthetic is interesting to think about and I hadn’t done so in awhile.  I don’t think that’s a ringing endorsement.

Reading Challenges:  The Complete Booker 2010 Challenge, Historical Reading Challenge 2010, 2010 100+ Reading Challenge, 2010 A to Z Reading Challenge, 2010 Support Your Local Library Reading Challenge, Typically British Reading Challenge

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