We have only reviewed a couple of other memoirs in four years because our site is devoted to fiction. That said, there was just something about A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France by Miranda Richmond Mouillot that kept pulling me in. I kept saying to myself, “We don’t review memoirs” – as if saying that would do any good. Pfft. Maybe it was that I had to find out about the house or what would cause a silence that long. I really can’t say why but I knew I had to read this book. I’m still as baffled as I was then about the whys, and I’m glad I talked myself into it. This is actually a mystery, a very puzzling mystery the author is trying to solve so she can dig down below the family myths to make peace with her family’s history. Sound interesting? Learn more in my review and then enter our giveaway because one of you is going to win a copy of this fascinating book!
“You’re like me Mirandali, she’d [Grandmother would] say. You’ll sourrwvive.
This was immensely comforting to me, because outside the reassuring confines of my grandmother’s presence, I was never too sure about that.”
From the time Miranda was a very small child living in Asheville, NC, she always had an escape plan in place, just in case she had to leave in a hurry. She was probably one of the best prepared children on the planet. Her shoes were always by the door so she could just step into them. She knew which of her possessions she would grab because she would have no time to ponder over them if she had to leave in a hurry. She made elaborate plans and double checked them regularly to ensure she would be ready no matter what. The only thing she didn’t know was why she did those things. It didn’t make sense, given where and when she was living; however, she knew it was imperative that she be prepared for the worst – that knock on the door she prayed would never come.
“…one minute I was singing along with her and the next I was clutching Erin’s arm for dear life, as if she might pull me out from under the avalanche of fear now suffocating me. ‘Stop,’ I begged her. ‘We have to stop. They played music to drown out the screams of the children when they were killing them.’ Years later Erin recalled that she’d been so upset by what I’d said that she’d run crying to her father.
‘What did he say?’ I asked her.
‘He told me you came from a family of Holocaust survivors with a lot of bad memories to cope with.’
All I could think was, I wish someone had told me that.”
Aside from this obsession, the other strange thing in Miranda’s life was having grandparents who seemed to hate each other. She was extremely close to her Romanian grandmother, Anna, whom she adored and who told her amazing stories in addition to giving her life lesson advice. For example, Miranda learned that being able to tell fortunes could save her life one day as it had her grandmother’s.
Miranda’s grandfather, Armand, was very different from her grandmother. He lived in Switzerland and only visited sporadically. The family walked on pins and needles when he was there because everything had to meet his exacting standards. He was known to have ruthlessly cut people out of his life if they stepped over an invisible ever-moving line that did not meet his high expectations. Luckily he adored Miranda and she learned much from him.
It didn’t make sense to Miranda that two people who were such wonderful influences on her life could be so estranged. And no one would or possibly could enlighten her about why. As she grew older, she realized that stories about her grandparents, like how they met or where they had been during the war, were almost non-existent and that the “facts” she had didn’t make sense and had huge gaping holes in them. She became obsessed with learning the truth about her grandparents’ lives and how that shaped who she had become. The more mysterious each of them became about it and the more they became intent on dodging her questions, the more determined she became to ferret out the truth.
“My grandmother examined the picture. ‘What a nice photo. Who’s that with Miranda?’
My mother replied, ‘That’s Daddy.’
My grandmother’s smooth forehead wrinkled into a map of sadness. She looked carefully at the picture, as if searching for a sign. Then she set the photo on the table in front of her.
‘I would never have recognized him.’ She sounded the words out slowly, shaking her head. ‘I wouldn’t know him if I saw him on the street.’ She picked it up and looked again. ‘May I have this?’ she asked my mother.
‘Sure,’ my mother said, sounding surprised.”
…At the time I wondered why she wanted to keep a picture of me with someone she didn’t know. I was too young to put one and one together and realize my grandparents might once have been two, to discern they might ever have been anything but strangers to each other.”
And then there was the house in La Roche, France – a huge bone of contention between her grandparents. When her grandfather decided he was going to sell it, he had to get her grandmother’s signature but, of course, they were not speaking. So he used Miranda as a go-between to try to get what he wanted. As usual, her grandmother dodged and weaved like an expert boxer on the subject. She did, however, take Miranda with her to La Roche to visit the house she purchased in 1948 – a stone house sitting at the foot of a castle in the south of France.
Miranda fell instantly in love with this ancient house; it felt as if she had always been meant to be there. Surely if she lived in that crumbling ruin, she could learn more about her grandparents’ relationship before it turned ugly and they stopped speaking. Each of them loved her and they must have loved each other once. Maybe the house was the clue she had been looking for all this time, the clue that would lead her to the truth about not only their relationship but about who she really is.
As she digs over the years, despite their attempts to divert her, she begins to unearth information about their lives during World War II that shakes her to the core. The family members they lost in the Holocaust, the risks they took, the phenomenal luck they each had, and the ways their paths crossed over and over again. Her grandmother refers to that phenomenal luck as a series of amazing miracles and, when looking at the sheer scope of it, Miranda has to agree. She also believes it can be at least partially attributed to her grandmother’s penchant for helping everyone she met, people who later returned those favors when it mattered most.
Even with years of searching, Miranda feels no closer to finding the truth about their relationship but both of her grandparents have health that is rapidly failing. She fears she may have built an elaborate fairy tale romance that might never have existed. What is the truth and why are her grandparents making it so difficult for her? And can she let go of the past long enough to see the future looking lovingly into her face?
Our secrets make us sick is a very true saying. I’m not saying that Miranda is sick by any means; however, she is searching for her family’s secrets because she senses those secrets negatively impact all of them in ways they can’t even fathom. All families have myths and secrets, some more than others. Those secrets have to come to light for the family to heal and for future generations to not be blindly led by them. Anna and Armand are fascinating people, and complete opposites. I often wondered what their lives would have been like if they hadn’t been overtaken and shaped by the events of World War II.
I felt like Nancy Drew, working alongside Miranda Richmond Mouillot in her quest for the truth about her family’s past. A Fifty-Year Silence is a complex real-life mystery which, unlike fiction, is not that easy to puzzle through. As with life, it’s the journey and the attempt that make it so worthwhile…and the peace in knowing you’ve done all you can do to learn the truth. I was fascinated and, at times, horrified by what Miranda learned. Anna and Armand were two ordinary yet extraordinary people caught up in circumstances no one could imagine who hasn’t lived through them – and whose World War II story is unlike any I’ve read. And, yes, Miranda, I think the house in La Roche was definitely calling to you – it’s exactly where you needed to be. If you like memoirs, WWII stories, or just a good real-life mystery then you’ll definitely want to read A Fifty-Year Silence, so be sure to enter our giveaway!
Can’t wait to read it?
A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France was published on January 20, 2015, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks).
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One lucky reader will win an ARC (advance readers copy) of A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France by Miranda Richmond Mouillot!
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