This epic, deeply moving novel about displacement will haunt any reader fortunate enough to discover it. Movingly recounting, through three interrelated episodes, the redeeming magnitude of love in even the most horrific circumstances, it is, quite simply, Ayelet Waldman’s best work to date.
The novel revolves around a gold-filigreed pendant bearing “the image, in vitreous enamel, of a peacock, a perfect gemstone staring from the tip of each painted feather.” It is actually a locket containing a tiny, sepia-toned photograph of two women - one a dwarf - at a 1913 suffrage congress.
The locket ends up on the Hungarian Gold Train of World War II, a train captured by American soldiers on the outskirts of Salzburg in 1945. That train is filled with all of the jewelry, furs, even Shabbat candlesticks, stolen from the Jews of Hungary before they were quickly dispatched to Nazi concentration camps.
A brief prologue, set in the Red Hook, Maine, of Waldman’s splendid novel “Red Hook Road,” introduces readers to Jack Wiseman, a former classics professor dying of pancreatic cancer. Natalie Stein, Jack’s lawyer granddaughter, comes for a visit to say good-bye and to lick her wounds from the recent end of her short-term marriage. While she’s there, Jack asks for Natalie’s help finding the owner of the enamel pendant.
The novel moves quickly to wartime Salzburg where, as a young lieutenant, Jack Wiseman must make secure the treasure on the newly captured Hungarian Gold Train. Jack takes the mission very seriously, despite his anger and disgust at the endless issues the train’s contents create, and his stand is challenged often by his growing affection for a displaced red-haired survivor of the Holocaust.
In Budapest, Natalie meets former Israeli officer Amitai Sasho, a dealer specializing in “the reclamation of art lost in the Holocaust” whose worldview bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Natalie’s grandfather. The journey Amitai and Natalie make towards a resolution of the questions raised by the pendant will change them forever.
In the last century, Dr. Imré Zobel, in one of his published case studies, writes of treating “Nina S.” Nina’s views on personal freedom are very much in opposition to the views of 1913 Budapest for both women and Jews. Her friendship with the dwarf Gizella Weiss is especially under scrutiny, a friendship eventually commemorated by a small photo inside an elaborately filigreed pendant.
A sense of displacement is rife in “Love and Treasure.” What Waldman tenderly delineates is the basic human need for “a community in which to belong, a sense of loyalty and identity.” Sometimes that yearning — that love — can be synthesized in the oddest of symbols, even in the vitreous enamel of a pendant from a century ago.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.