Based on the author’s own family letters, Send for Me tells the story of Annelise, a young woman in prewar Germany. Growing up working at her parents’ popular bakery, she's always imagined a future full of delicious possibilities. Despite rumors that anti-Jewish sentiment is on the rise, Annelise and her parents can’t quite believe that it will affect them; they’re hardly religious. But as she falls in love, marries, and gives birth to her daughter, the dangers grow closer. Soon Annelise and her husband are given the chance to leave for America, but they must go without her parents, whose future and safety are uncertain.
Two generations later in a small Midwestern city, Annelise’s granddaughter, Clare, is a young woman newly in love. But when she stumbles upon a trove of the letters her great-grandmother wrote from Germany after Annelise's departure, she sees the history of her family’s sacrifices in a new light, leading her to question whether she can still honor the past while planning for her future.
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|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
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I can hardly speak.
It starts with the panic, the sound of sharp knocking. The pounding on Annelise’s door, a crash in her skull, jolting her from sleep. They’re coming. Her heart slams, and she sits up, blind in the darkness. Her arms reach out. Where is the baby? Fear floods her lungs. She’s drowning.
They’re coming. Breathe. Hold the baby close, keep her quiet.
Is there something else in the churning flood of terror? In the squeeze of panic, the slightest slackening, relief? She’s been waiting so long for this moment, dread her constant companion, and now it’s here. Whatever horror is about to befall her, she won’t have to fear it any longer.
In the room, silent now, she strains to hear. Her heart is pounding so hard her body is thrumming, her hands trembling. Is that her husband next to her, snoring softly? Is that the warm, reassuring shape of him? They will take him, too. They’ll take all of it, everything and everyone she has ever loved. In an instant. A flash.
Years will pass, a long, surprising slant of light, and this terror will abate. She will pick her daughter up from school, stand in her kitchen with her hands on her hips, sip from a glass in the evening, slip under smooth sheets. But this will always be her frozen moment, the definition of her days. They will always be pounding on the door in the middle of the night. They will always be coming.
An hour doesn’t pass that I don’t think about you.
There is so much work to do. Toil is a constant in her life, the ongoing story of her years. In fact, Klara takes some comfort in its predictability, the way that a Sunday afternoon of polishing silver or washing floors can ease her nerves and stretch her mind into a pleasant blankness. And there is the undeniable satisfaction of a task completed, the pleasing order and gleam of a finely tended home.
Of course, there’s also the bakery: her pride and livelihood, yes, but oh, those dreadful dark mornings, the midday heat, the relentless specifics of the measurements, the unforgiving timing of every little thing. Some days she wakes up, dawn still hours away, and the exhaustion of the day before clings to her; she would want to roll over and go back to sleep if she allowed herself even to want that.
Klara can never let on, can never show this weakness. Annelise grouses and mutters and yawns dramatically, stares with sullen dark eyes and refuses to speak for hours, the spectacle of her displeasure so varied and colorful, she’s like a peacock of disdain.
She envies her daughter’s extravagance. But Klara can’t allow herself to crack. A word of complaint from her could loose an avalanche.
The precision of the bakery does, in a way, appeal to her nature, but it’s such a precarious balance. They can’t make any mistakes or they pay double, triple the price in lost revenue.
It changes a person—all of it, the tasks at hand. Klara has changed—of course she has! She’s become someone who is entirely focused on the work she must do. But that’s simply what it is to be a woman of good standing, to be alive in the world. It defies consideration.
Early in her marriage, there were mishaps: the loaf of bread that almost burned down the apartment, the boiled egg, forgotten, that exploded in the kitchen, sending bits of shell like shrapnel flying around the room. She cleaned up every last splinter before Annelise woke, before Julius came into the kitchen for coffee, and so only Klara herself, who accidentally knelt on a sharp chip of eggshell, was even slightly injured. She considers that injury . . . what? Not a punishment, exactly, but a reminder, the quick, searing pain a covenant. She learned not to make those mistakes, and in learning, she has become intolerant of laxity. And so, she has become intolerant of her own daughter.
How did such a girl come from her? Annelise was such an industrious child when she was small, so cheerful and competent, her dear little helper! But now she’s almost fifteen, and a fog has settled over her. Now Annelise is alternately dreamy and resentful, her work at the bakery halfhearted at best. She suffers no remorse when she leaves a domestic task half done, when (sighing) she mops around the kitchen table instead of underneath it, when she takes the feather duster to the living room and then, halfway through, for no apparent reason, simply abandons her task.
Yes, Klara adores her daughter, of course she does. It’s just that it is so much easier to adore her after the work is done. But this is the problem: the work is never done. And so, when Annelise complains—or when she mumbles under her breath, or dallies, or says, “I’ll do it in just a few minutes,” frustration blooms in Klara like deadly nightshade.
There was the warm Tuesday evening, just last week, when Klara dragged herself home after a long day at the bakery (poor, dependable Julius was still there, finishing the orders, closing the store). Klara trudged up the apartment stairs, expertly finessed the stubborn lock and opened the door to their apartment, and walked into an unholy, godforsaken mess: breakfast dishes still on the table (not even soaking in the sink), Annelise’s books and papers strewn about the living room, her cello propped against the wall, dressing gown on the floor like a puddle of pink cotton, an apple core on the piano. And there: Annelise herself, draped across the sofa, face slack and peaceful, asleep. Asleep!
Well. A flame ignited inside Klara; she could almost hear the pop. She had been at the bakery since four in the morning. Her ankles were swollen, her feet practically screaming out loud with pain. She was coated in sugar and flour and oil and sweat, a slick organic grime. She had asked Annelise to start dinner, to boil the potatoes and peel the carrots, but there was no sign of any work having been done. My God, she was bone-weary, and now this: hours ahead of her.
Klara, electrified with fury, shook her daughter awake.
“What is the matter with you?” she barked. “Get up! Get up!” She was wild, murderous. She shook Annelise’s shoulders harder than necessary, allowed her fingers the momentary pleasure of digging roughly into her daughter’s flesh.
“Mama!” Annelise’s voice was high and choked. She had been ripped from a lovely, dozy dream: she was performing a cello recital, every note perfection. For the briefest moment her mother’s scolding overlapped with Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne. Annelise blinked, registered the bite of Klara’s fingers into her shoulders, her mother’s blotchy-pink, enraged face hovering above hers. Her eyes watered. “I’m sorry,” she squeaked. “I fell asleep.”
“Obviously,” Klara hissed. “Clean up this mess right now!” She turned on her heels and headed into the kitchen to begin her next shift. From the living room, Annelise’s sobs were tiny, gulping chirps. A second ago, Klara had been so mad she’d been quaking. But just as suddenly as it had combusted, the flame was doused. A liquid embarrassment seeped through her edges now. She was still wearing her shoes, her cloth coat, but she couldn’t go back into the living room to put them away. She blinked back her own tears as she attacked the potatoes with the sharp peeling knife.
She was training Annelise to function without her. That’s what she was doing. One doesn’t always remember it in the busy slog of the day, but that is the project. A mother teaches her daughter to perpetuate the tedious rituals of her own imperfect life. And by instilling in her child the virtues of order, she shows her how to keep the chaos at bay. It’s not always pleasant. But what else is there?
But in a dark house, at night, next to her sleeping husband, she aches for the moments she didn’t touch Annelise as she passed, the times she didn’t praise her beautiful cello playing; how easy it would be to whisper to her what she is, my treasure, to kiss her dark head. Regret is a low, constant throb.
Klara shrugged off her coat, draped it over a kitchen chair, and began stripping the potatoes with an expert fwip-fwip. The kitchen grew dim as evening settled. She peeled and peeled. Potatoes accumulated in the pot like white stones in cold water. The apartment was quiet, and, after a long time, she was calm.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation of Lauren Fox’s Send for Me, a multigenerational novel cast against the backdrop of World War II Germany and contemporary Milwaukee, Wisconsin, wherein the lessons and loves passed down among mothers and daughters form powerful ties that neither time nor space is able to sever.
1. The novel is told in a kaleidoscopic, time-hopping fashion such that the strands of the four generations of women intertwine seamlessly. How did this structure affect your relationship with Klara, Annelise, Ruth, and Clare, individually and together?
2. Despite living in radically different cultures and time periods, all four women demonstrate a fierce independence regarding their fate in love and motherhood. To what degree is each of their sentiments about a woman’s place in society rebellious, and when (if ever) does it become more acceptable? Do they strike a balance of satisfying their own desires with the roles society determines for them?
3. For the majority of the book (save the excerpts from Klara’s letters), Fox chose an omniscient narrator whose insights into the characters’ minds offer nuanced glimpses into their largely reticent relationships. How close did you feel to the women in the book as you read? What did you learn about these women from what was unsaid, or from between the lines—and what do they learn about each other in the same way?
4. What are some of the defining characteristics that carry among the generations of women? How do the mothers’ attitudes about their children reflect their own personalities? Consider Klara’s relationship with her granddaughter, Ruthie, compared to with her daughter, Annelise; and Ruthie’s relationship with Clare versus Clare’s relationship with Klara, vis-à-vis the letters she finds?
5. How are the feelings of satisfaction and pleasure that come from marriage depicted in the novel? What is the balance between staying true to a husband or wife, and indulging in an unrequited love—either nearby or at a distance? Consider the way that Max, Johanna, Charlotte, Oskar, and Matthew maintain a presence in their lovers’ lives.
6. What dominant emotions would you say comprise the state of love in the novel? Consider the circumstances in which love is shared and withheld, realized and unrealized, romantic and familial. Is there a difference in the kind of love that takes place between people who are actually together, in time and/or space, and those who are apart? Consider the line describing Annelise and Oskar: “Their attraction is sadness, is an attempt to fill the hole, is cold comfort, is comfort.” (page 225)
7. Annelise’s entrée into motherhood is full of obstacles and, in a way, pushes up against her beliefs about her rights to her body. Where does having a child limit her self-expression, and how does it empower and revitalize her?
8. In the first timeframe of the novel, in 1930s–40s Germany, the rise of the Nazis and anti-Semitic behaviors forms a potent but subtle undercurrent. How are these daily realities felt by the characters in their work and home lives? How do their sufferings accumulate over time, and when does a breaking point occur? How large a force did you feel World War II to be in the novel, through its presence and absence?
9. Consider the title of the novel, Send for Me. How does its meaning echo across the generations? Who is being sent for, and who is doing the receiving?
10. Compare Annelise’s experiences as a young wife and mother in Germany with those in the United States. Does she seem to favor one over the other, and if so, why? Consider her affirmation: “This is her street now. These are the wooden steps that lead up to her front door, the peeling paint on the railing. This is the way the key catches, then turns the lock. Annelise is the key. She is the moment: stuck tight before she loosens, then finally gives.” (page 185)
11. It’s expressed that Clare “wondered, much later, if during those stretched out days with her grandparents she might have taken on some of their sadness; if what they gave her, along with their love, was a grain of something that embedded itself inside her, that she protected, in spite of herself, with her body’s hot sludge, until it was her own gorgeous, secret sorrow, nacreous and pearled.” (pages 77–78) What does this notion suggest about how and what we inherit from our ancestors? Are the characters in the novel able to control what is passed down?
12. How do you think Klara would have responded to living in America, had she made it?
13. Which character did you relate to most while reading? How big a role did the character’s age, location, or cultural background affect your ability to empathize with him or her?
14. When they arrive in the United States, Walter and Annelise are considered “refugees.” Discuss how the use of this word and categorization for a group of people struck you reading now, post-2020.
15. What do you know of your own family’s heritage and, if relevant, transplantation to America? How far along the chain of immigration are you, and what did the novel illuminate about that story and journey?