The Puzzle King

The Puzzle King

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by Betsy Carter
     
 

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On a gray morning in 1936, Flora Phelps stands in line at the American consulate in Stuttgart, Germany. She carries a gift for the consul, whom she will bribe in order to help her family get out of Hitler's Germany. This is the story of unlikely heroes, the lively, beautiful Flora and her husband, the brooding, studious Simon, two immigrants who were each sent to

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Overview

On a gray morning in 1936, Flora Phelps stands in line at the American consulate in Stuttgart, Germany. She carries a gift for the consul, whom she will bribe in order to help her family get out of Hitler's Germany. This is the story of unlikely heroes, the lively, beautiful Flora and her husband, the brooding, studious Simon, two immigrants who were each sent to America by their families to find better lives. An improbable match, they meet in New York City and fall in love. Simon - inventor of the jigsaw puzzle - eventually makes his fortune. Now wealthy, but still outsiders, Flora and Simon become obsessed with rescuing the loved ones they left behind in Europe whose fates are determined by growing anti-Semitism on both sides of the Atlantic.

Editorial Reviews

The Miami Herald
“Skillfully using ties to her own family, Carter weaves a compelling story and a rich, multilayered novel around three Jewish sisters and deftly captures the squalor and bustle of early 20th century New York . . . A fine novel with twists and turns and pieces that interlock tightly . . . Carter at her best.” —The Miami Herald
Publishers Weekly
Carter (Swim to Me) mines her family history in this underwhelming novel that examines the lives and loves of Jewish immigrants in early 20th-century New York. Nine-year-old Simon Phelps is sent by his mother from Lithuania to America, where he grows up poor but ambitious on the Lower East Side. He meets German-born Flora Grossman, and their marriage and ascent into American success forms the linchpin for the familiar tales of immigrants vacillating between the New World and the Old. The interwoven stories of Flora and her sisters—Seema, the kept mistress of a WASP banker, and the somber Margot, who endures an austere life in post-WWI Germany—highlight the different paths for German-Jewish women. Meanwhile, Simon’s booming career in the advertising world is tempered by the grief he feels as he searches for his lost family, though his success enables him to plan a bold mission of salvation. Unfortunately, the narrative, while admirable in scope, feels too beholden to its source material, with the remote, speculative tone making this often feel more like a historian’s work than a novelist’s. (Aug.)
Library Journal
When is a person a hero or just a dedicated family member? Carter (Swim to Me) tackles this question in her latest novel, a moving tale of two ordinary young people sent to America from Europe by their respective families in hopes that they would have a better life than their families can offer. Who could predict that Flora and Simon would not only meet and fall in love but that Simon would become wealthy as America's Puzzle King? Who could predict that the wife of the Puzzle King would dare to go to Hitler's Germany, bribe the American consulate, and sign affidavits of support for hundreds of German Jews? VERDICT Drawing on family legends (no one could invent a story line like this one), Carter deftly paints a panoramic portrait of life during the turbulent 1930s. The pieces of her gripping story fit together so neatly that they cannot easily be torn apart. Highly recommended.—Marika Zemke, Commerce Twp. Comm. Lib., MI
Kirkus Reviews
Successful American immigrants rescue hundreds of Jews from Nazi Germany in this latest from memoirist and novelist Carter (Swim to Me, 2007, etc.). The bulk of the novel traces the pre-1930s history of Carter's hero and heroine. In 1892, his mother sends nine-year-old Simon Phelps to America from Vilna, Lithuania. Despite years of searching, he never hears from her or the rest of his family again. A bright, artistic boy, he quickly becomes successful in lithography, window dressing and then in advertising. In 1909 he falls in love with Flora Grossman, who has come to America with her sister Seema. Unlike Simon, Flora remains in touch with her mother and younger sister in Germany. Flora and Simon marry and live happily; his thoughtful reserve and strong convictions compliment her more carefree, easygoing, conventional nature. They enjoy increasing financial success and contentment, marred only by their inability to have children. Meanwhile, sexy, complex Seema, who unlike Flora always felt rejected by their mother, breaks with tradition, allowing herself to be kept by a married non-Jew with anti-Semitic tendencies. When their mother dies in 1928, Flora and Seema return to Germany. Seema feels an unexpected connection to their homeland and decides to remain. She falls in love with a journalist who convinces her to convert to Catholicism to escape being branded a Jew. In the early '30s, Simon and Flora go to Europe with money and documents he has prepared to get as many family members out of Germany as possible. Carter gives disappointingly short shrift to this final act of the drama. Sentimental and rather slow.
San Francisco Book Review
“Skillfully using ties to her own family, Carter weaves a compelling story and a rich, multilayered novel around three Jewish sisters and deftly captures the squalor and bustle of early 20th century New York . . . A fine novel with twists and turns and pieces that interlock tightly . . . Carter at her best.” —The Miami Herald
The Louisville Courier-Journal
“Skillfully using ties to her own family, Carter weaves a compelling story and a rich, multilayered novel around three Jewish sisters and deftly captures the squalor and bustle of early 20th century New York . . . A fine novel with twists and turns and pieces that interlock tightly . . . Carter at her best.” —The Miami Herald
From the Publisher
"Everybody loves an inspiring rags-to-riches story, and The Puzzle King delivers that in spades . . . [it tells] the immigrant story from a uniquely relationship-and family-based perspective, all the while honoring their bravery and stoicism in the face of great odds.” —San Francisco Book Review

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781565125940
Publisher:
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
08/25/2009
Pages:
352
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

What People are saying about this

The Louisville Courier-Journal
“It’s a rare treat when a novel’s literary merit can compete with its capacity to entertain . . . Carter, a consummate storyteller, cobbles declarative sentences from diction so unexpected that readers rush from one vivid image and scene to the next until the book’s characters, their culture and the caveats of their existence are as real as anyone and anything has ever been.”

Meet the Author

Betsy Carter is the author of Swim to Me and The Orange BlossomSpecial. Her memoir, Nothing to Fall Back On, was a national bestseller. She is a contributing editor for O: The Oprah Magazine and writes for Good Housekeeping, New York, and AARP, among others. Carter formerly served as an editor at Esquire, Newsweek, and Harper's Bazaar, and was the founding editor of New York Woman. She lives in New York City.

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Puzzle King 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Frisbeesage More than 1 year ago
Puzzle King is the story of a few of the fortunate who escaped from Germany to America before the start of World War II. Simon, and the sisters Flora, and Seema all are sent to America as young children, leaving their families behind in Germany. Their success as immigrants is extraordinary as their find their place in the new country, work hard, and prosper. Yet always hanging over them is the question of what happened to the families they left behind. This is a new perspective on WWII, that of the ones who made it out, yet are still stuck looking back. Betsy Carter writes beautiful, wise, funny characters that I could really empathize with. The sisters, Flora and Seema, in particular are flawed, but likable nonetheless. The plot is an interesting one, an angle I have not read before. Unfortunately the story is choppy, fully fleshed out in parts, then skimming over more important points, leaving out crucial details. We get little information about Simon's search for his own family, about his sudden success as an artist, and about the courtship between he and Flora. I like Betsy Carter's writing style and I think she tried to accomplish something really ambitious with this book.