Book Review: The Postcard by Anne Berest

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Book Review: The Postcard by Anne Berest
La Carte Postale, the best-selling novel by Anne Berest, was first published in France in 2021; the French version won numerous awards, including the first-ever Goncourt Prize US. An English language edition, very nicely translated by Tina Kover, was published in 2023, and a paperback edition will be released in the US in May. Although it is presented as a novel, the story is true, and historical — the author calls it un roman vrai — based on extensive research into the author’s family history by both her and her mother, Lélia Picabia. Vintage postcard of Rue d’Auteuil The story begins (in a way) when a mysterious postcard arrives at the home of the author’s parents in suburban Paris, in 2003. The postcard is anonymous, and the only “message” on it is the handwritten names of four members of Lélia’s family who were deported from France in 1942 and perished in Auschwitz. After an initial family discussion about who the postcard could have come from, and what the motivation could have been for sending it, it is tucked away in a drawer and essentially forgotten for some years.  But the author remembers the postcard when she is pregnant with her first child; she asks her mother to tell her something about her four ancestors whose names were on the card, of whom she has previously known almost nothing. The gatehouse of Auschwitz. Photo credit: pzk net / Wikimedia commons Lélia begins by telling her about the family’s roots in Russia and their flight from there in 1919, when the patriarch of the family urges his adult children to leave, warning them that Russia is no longer safe for Jews. This part of the story, which takes the patriarch to Palestine and his children to various other places in Europe, is exhaustively and diligently researched — and is a quite fascinating family history. And because Berest is not only a diligent researcher but also a gifted storyteller, details drawn from letters and journals bring the characters to life as they continue their lives in Latvia, Palestine, and finally Paris, where it is Ephraim’s dream (the author’s great-grandfather) to establish his family in France and become fully assimilated French citizens. But as the family settles into their new home in Paris, and the children excel in their studies, the foreshadowing of future tragedy is never far away. Anne Berest at the foire du livre, Brive La Gaillarde, 2010. Photo credit: Le grand Cricri /Wikimedia commons.
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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor, writing coach and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and "A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France." She writes frequently about France for Bonjour Paris, France Today, and a variety of other publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She has taught “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for education abroad programs of the City University of New York since 1997, and she teaches online classes for Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. She is currently working on her next book in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in Champagne.