USA TODAY BESTSELLER • “Searing . . . a heartbreaking page-turner.”—People (Book of the Week)
An intimate portrait of a friendship severed by history, and a sweeping saga of wartime, motherhood, and legacy by an award-winning novelist
East Village, 1989
Things had never been easy between Ava Fisher and her estranged mother Ilse. Too many questions hovered between them: Who was Ava's father? Where had Ilse been during the war? Why had she left her only child in a German orphanage during the war’s final months? But now Ilse’s ashes have arrived from Germany, and with them, a trove of unsent letters addressed to someone else unknown to Ava: Renate Bauer, a childhood friend. As her mother’s letters unfurl a dark past, Ava spirals deep into the shocking history of a woman she never truly knew.
As the Nazi party tightens its grip on the city, Ilse and Renate find their friendship under siege—and Ilse’s increasing involvement in the Hitler Youth movement leaves them on opposing sides of the gathering storm. Then the Nuremburg Laws force Renate to confront a long-buried past, and a catastrophic betrayal is set in motion. . . .
An unflinching exploration of Nazi Germany and its legacy, Wunderland is at once a powerful portrait of an unspeakable crime history and a page-turning contemplation of womanhood, wartime, and just how far we might go in order to belong.
Praise for Wunderland
“Engrossing . . . Epstein reveals the devastating choices these women make.”—Real Simple
“Wunderland is both an engrossing family drama and a foray into a dark period of history . . . a wholly original angle to the WWII novel. You’ll read it in one shivered sitting.”—Refinery29
“A vividly written and stark chronicle of Nazism and its legacies.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A wealth of history turns Wunderland into a novel that’s both beautiful and devastating. . . . Epstein taps into the 1930s prewar era, laying out an unsparing narrative that details tragic events and horrifying legacies . . . opening a new door that may lead to redemption and joy for future generations.”—BookPage (starred review)
“[A] heartbreaking historical tour de force . . . Man’s inhumanity to man—and the redemptive power of forgiveness—is on stark and effective display in Epstein’s gripping novel, a devastating tale bound for bestseller lists.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.60(d)|
About the Author
JENNIFER CODY EPSTEIN is the author of the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai, and The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, and winner of the 2013 Asian Pacific Association of Librarians Honor award for outstanding fiction. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Self, Mademoiselle, and many others. She has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and an MA in international affairs from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters.
Read an Excerpt
She sits in a sea of tangled sheets and blankets, amid the white crests of packing peanuts and age-curled pages of letters pried from their envelopes with increasing feverishness. The bed is solid: the same heavy oaken headboard, same stained, sloping mattress upon which she has slept and breastfed and read and sketched for more than a decade; the one place she comes to truly be at rest. And yet at this moment, she’s somehow both floating off it and falling right through it, is both untethered and sinking like a stone.
Perching her reading glasses atop her head, Ava Fischer clasps her knees to her chest. Her face tight and hot with tears shed, dried, and shed again, she tosses the last of the letters onto the bed. Surveying the sun-challenged domain that serves as both drawing studio and master bedroom, she finds herself amazed that it looks exactly as it did a little over an hour earlier, while in the same amount of time her entire world has been gutted, brusquely turned on its head. And yet the illustration she’s been working on still sits atop her drafting table, anchored at one corner by an untouched plate of marmalade toast and another by a cold coffee mug inscribed with Drink Me. A few peanuts that escaped in her initial frenzy of unpacking the box still lie strewn on the shag carpet, air-puffed stars in eccentric and porous constellations against a worn, dun-colored sky.
But it’s the bed that holds the full evidence of Ava’s emotional undoing. The bed, with its wrinkled sheets and mismatched cushions, its dusty bedskirt and moth-eaten coverlet, its stale tobacco tang that somehow lingers on four full years after she stopped smoking. The bed, with the now-empty Luftpost carton her daughter had signed for earlier and carried in to Ava with mild curiosity (It’s from Bremen. Isn’t that where you grew up?).
The bed upon which Ava had then waited for what felt like hours, box in her lap, for Sophie to leave to meet her friends. Upon finally hearing her daughter’s plastic-soled flats patter down three flights of stairs before exiting onto Second Avenue, she’d dropped the package long enough to lunge toward the window to watch the fourteen-year-old stroll off, her hands in the pockets of her checked menswear vest, Walkman headphones glinting silver in the sun.
The bed, where she’d read the lawyer’s curtly formal note less with shock than a sinking sense of acceptance:
Sehr geehrte Frau von Fischer:
As your mother’s lawyer and designated executor of her estate, I regret to inform you that your motherIlse Maria von Fischerpassed away on the twelfth of April, after a long battle with uterine cancer.
In accordance with her wishes, I enclose her remains for your disposal and request that you confirm delivery by fax or phone at the numbers listed on our letterhead. Once we have your confirmation we will be able to release the remainder of your inheritance, roughly 71,000 marks. If you do not confirm receipt in person, I’ve been instructed to donate this amount to The Blue Card, a charity of your late mother’s choosing.
I also include some letters that your mother asked be forwarded to you, and request that you confirm receipt of these as well.
With condolences and best regards:
Bernard Frankel, LLP
Leaning stiffly against the headboard, Ava again forces herself to make these impossible-seeming connections: between the idea of remains and the Tupperware-style container she’d pulled from beneath the peanuts an hour earlier. Between Mamathat inevitably fraught and painful thoughtand the gritty powder Ava had discovered upon prying off the container’s lid. It hadn’t smelled like Ilse, that disquietingly familiar blend of facial soap, 4711 cologne, and faint perspiration. It certainly hadn’t looked like her; in Ava’s mind’s eye her mother was eternally milk-skinned and muscular, golden-haired and silver-eyed. Above all, overwhelmingly dense.
And yet staring into the ashy depths, she’d registered the truth of the lawyer’s assertion: this was now quite literally all that was left of Ilse von Fischer, the evasive, icy parent who had abandoned Ava physically during the war and emotionally in its wake; who’d left her in this very apartment twelve years earlier, while Sophie wailed from her crib. And while it saddened Ava to realize that the woman herself no longer walked and breathed, in the end it hadn’t really shocked her; for Ava, Ilse had effectively ceased to exist the moment she walked out the door that hot summer of 1977. Yes, for a few years there’d been the occasional long-distance call that Ava cut short after hearing Ilse’s curt Hallo. There’d been the slow trickle of cards and letters and the occasional small package, all of which Ava returned to Bremen unopened. But once Sophie grew old enough to answer the phone and read the return addresses on envelopes, Ava changed their number and sent a telegraphed ultimatum through Western Union:
Kontaktiere uns nicht (halt) du bist jetzt tot (halt)
Do not contact (stop) for us you are dead (stop)
No, it wasn’t so much Ilse’s physical remnants that had launched her into this vertiginous shock. It was the words she had left behind: detailed, careful accounts sealed into over a dozen envelopes. I also include some letters that your mother asked be forwarded to you, the lawyer had written, almost in a casual aside. Could he have known all that they encompassed: the crushing truths and bereft confessions? Though to be sure, some of these had merely confirmed Ava’s own long-held suspicions. I actually began writing you, one divulged, from an old jail in Heidelberg, where the Americans had hoped to de-Nazify me.
Entnazifizieren! She’d blinked at that unfamiliar and faintly absurd verb (as though moral rot could be extracted like a burst appendix!). But her shiver had been less one of surprise than vindication. Everyone joined, Ilse would say, shrugging, but Ava had always sensed a darker story shadowing this particular deflection.
Tossing the lawyer’s note aside, Ava once more takes in her epistolary inheritance. Yellowing with age and of various thicknesses, the letters lie strewn over the coverlet. None of them seemingly sent; all of them addressed to the same woman:
163 Eldridge St
New York, New York 10002
It’s the first time Ava has encountered this name: Renate Bauer. But that Ilse wrote the woman obsessively is clear: the letters are all in her old-fashioned, slightly Gothic hand. And the return address is quite definitively the Schwachhausen row house that Ava still dreams of in startling detail: the lemon yellow her mother had painted Ava’s bedroom wall as a child. The green chipped mug in which they’d kept their two toothbrushes. The dark circular stain on the wooden desk in Ilse’s bedroom, the legacy of some slopped coffee, wine, or water.
Reaching for the nearest onedated August 1976Ava smooths the two thin sheets against the wrinkled linen of her pajama pants, catching a whiff of must and mothballs, a whispered vanilla hint. Like the others, this one is written in the informal “Du” form, with capitals omitted as her mother would have done for a close friend:
My dearest Reni!
Last night I had a dream. It began the day that we first met in middle school; when youlate as alwaysrushed into me on your way into our classroom and dropped the books you were carrying. Strange, how so much from more recent years has become vague for me. And yet I still recall small details of our first encounter with such clarity: the golden brown of your eyes. The red bow in your hair. The worn book I handed back to you, with the comment that for some reason I’d only read the sequel, but had loved it.
Then, somehow, it was latermuch, much later, and I was walking down Unter den Linden, by the newsstands and the U-Bahn station, on the route we always took coming back to your house after school. I had the book, and I knew that returning it (not to you but to Franz for some reason) was of utmost, nearly crushing importance. The street was clean and gray and so crowded I could barely breathe. But it was also completely silent. I was aware of feeling very alone, and very worried that I wouldn’t accomplish my task.
Then I saw you only a few meters ahead, hurrying in the opposite direction. You were wearing your green coat and your little black hat, and Franz had on one of those tweed newsboys he used to favor. I felt such enormous joy and relief! I tried to catch up to you but the crowd kept pushing, pushing against me, pushing me back. I tried to call out to you, but though you seemed close enough you didn’t hear me. The two of you just kept walking. And eventually, you both disappeared.
I woke up in tears, but also strangely resigned. I don’t know much about dreams—certainly not as much as your mother did (I still remember talking with her for hours about what ours were, what they meant). But it seemed to me that this one was perhaps a sign that it was finally time to realize the truth: that while I continually fantasize about reaching out to you and Franz, perhaps even coming to New York and hand-delivering my letters to you, the truth is that for the moment at least I lack the courage to even drop them into the post. I should therefore probably just stop writing them altogether. Indeed, if I were a less obstinate person I likely would have stopped a long time ago.
But we both know how I hold on to things.
Reni. If there were just one thing in all these writings I could communicate to you, it would be this: that if I could go back and change everything, I would. Everything. I would even change the fact of my own existence, my own birth, if it meant that I could undo what was done—to you, and to your family. That I can’t is a fact that pains me every single day.
In the end, perhaps that is my true prison.
Ava shuts her eyes. For a moment the old panic threatens: the suffocating certainty that the ceiling and walls are about to collapse, choking out all air and light. To counter the attack, she summons the comforting image suggested by her last therapist: the golden Montauk shoreline, captured breezily in midsummer.
But what comes instead is another beachside memory entirely.
In it Ava is perhaps six, on a rare mother-daughter outing to Großer Wannsee shortly after their postwar reunion. The sand is wet and grainy, the day bone-bright and raw in the way very early spring days can be. At some point Ava sees Ilse striding walking away from her briskly, her braid-wrapped head a shrinking spot of brightness in the chill morning light. The sight pries open a black, panicked hole in Ava’s center: Come back, she wails. Don’t leave me. Leaping to her bare feet, she charges after the retreating figure—only to feel a pair of strong arms sweep her up from behind. For a moment she writhes and kicks before recognizing the still-familiar form, the sturdy torso and round breasts pressed into her small back.
Dummes Mädchen, murmurs Ilse, who has been behind her the whole time. What on earth is the matter with you now?
The recollection carries the heft and hurt of a physical blow. What pulls her from it is a sudden pounding on the door, violent enough to rattle the ancient air conditioner in its frame.
“Mom!” Sophie shouts, with that spontaneous and implacable outrage peculiar to teenaged girls. “I totally forgot I promised to bring Erica back her Lou Reed sweatshirt. Did you wash it? You said you were going to wash it.”
Sophie? Why was she back? And how had she gotten in without Ava hearing her?
After a moment of blank paralysis she leaps to her knees and begins scrabbling the letters together. “Just a moment,” she calls, thinking: Scheisse, Scheisse, Sophie. Her daughter fully believes that Ilse has been dead now for over a decade. What am I going to tell her?
“Mom! Do you have it?” The doorknob chatters in its fixture. “Oh my God—why is this locked?”
“Hold on! Just hold on a minute!” A desperate look around the unkempt bedroom: the sweatshirt’s nowhere in sight.
Shoving the urn inside the box, Ava showers it with a handful of peanuts and sweeps the letters into an untidy pile beside it. Then she makes her way to the door, her knees as weak as a New York City Marathon runner’s, her heart beating like a living creature in her mouth.
“Mom! Jesus!” (Bang-bang-bang.) “Erica’s waiting! What the hell is going on in there?”
“Nothing,” says Ava shakily.
And with a deep breath, she reaches for the doorknob.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
1. The various points of view in the novel give us insight into a character’s thinking and help us understand why they made certain decisions. Did any character make a decision that you felt was unforgiveable?
2. Which character did you most relate to in the novel? Which character did you find the most difficult to understand?
3. We first enter the story through Ava’s point of view as she reads Ilse’s letters for the first time. What is the benefit of using this structure? Why does the author choose to write in multiple time periods? Would the story have been different had it been written chronologically?
4. Renate’s sense of identity is turned upside down at a pivotal point in her adolescence. What impact do you think this had on Renate’s life? Can you relate to her experience?
5. As the novel progresses, we see Ilse remain silent as drastic changes take place in her city, many of which ultimately impact Renate. Why do you think Ilse doesn’t speak up?
6. Despite butting heads at every turn, Ava and her mother are similar in many ways—they’re both headstrong, determined, and protective. What more do you think they have in common? Why is their relationship so strained?
7. Why do you think Ilse keeps so many secrets from Ava? Do you think Ava would have fared better had she known the truth from the start? Why or why not?
8. Did you find Ilse to be a sympathetic character? When did you begin to understand her point of view, or when did you lose touch with her?
9. Wunderland opens with an epigraph from Alice in Wonderland and Renate returns to this children’s story several times in the novel. What is the significance of this to the novel and to Renate in particular?
10. Were you surprised by the ending? What did you think of Renate’s decisions in the last chapter?
11. Ultimately, Ilse and Renate’s story is a fictionalized account of what truly happened to millions of people in Europe during WWII. What is the benefit of reading a fictionalized novel about this time period? How is it different from reading nonfiction about the same events?
12. Do you feel that any of the themes explored in Wunderland are applicable in today’s world?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I've said it before and I'll say it again - one of my favorite things about Historical Fiction is that, even after reading so many different books covering one single era, there are SO many more stories to be told. Sometimes I start putting pressure on myself to read outside of the WWI/WWII eras of Historical Fiction - and sometimes I do - but for the most part, I just have such a genuine love for well written accounts of that era and if something is working for me, why mess with it? All of this being said, I have been so excited for Wunderland for at least 6 months. Something about the cover and the font immediately drew me in and then the synopsis hooked me well and good. The synopsis alludes to this (and I think anyone that has ever read a book centered on WWII had an idea what was coming), but what follows is a spoiler so read at your own risk - the best part of this book references what I mentioned in my opening paragraph: the ability to tell so many untold stories in a genre that is filled with hundreds of thousands of titles. In all of my WWII era books, I haven't read a single one from the perspective of a German that espoused early Nazi propaganda ... until they realized that their own lineage was far from the Aryan ideal. Renate, Ava, and Ilse were all incredibly compelling characters, and once this book really snagged my focus (it did take about 60 pages) I was a total goner. I think I ended up reading about 300 pages in one day?? I was blown away by the stories that were told, and the small yet ever growing indignities Renate and her family faced - made all the worse after being so sure that she was, at best, on the right side of things, and, at worst, safe enough in her own life to not worry too terribly much about others. Living in Ilse's head for the chapters from her POV was so interesting, and, to be completely honest, terrifying. The lengths some Germans went to in order to soothe their minds while being the bystanders of (and sometimes the perpetrators of) violence and criminal activity towards those of Jewish ancestry are ASTOUNDING ... yet you can see, in the most reprehensible way, how some were able to do it through the reading of Ilse's chapters. As Ilse's duplicity grows and Renate's terror increases, you're also ping ponged back and forth through Ilse's daughter's life. Following the war, Ava was left in the care of her grandparents until a bombing forced them from her lives and forced her into an orphanage. Her mother did come from her, but their relationship was forever strained and never got any better - and you see the beginnings of such issues in Ava's life with her own daughter, Sophie. I never knew exactly where the book was headed, although I had some ideas about what was to come. For the things I "guessed," I was typically right - but there were other things that came totally out of left field that enhanced the story so thoroughly. This book is 100% recommended for fans of WWII Historical Fiction - with as much as you might have read, I truly believe this is an important new entry into the genre.
I loved this book!! I give it 4.5 stars. The book alternated between Ilse and Renate during the 1930s in Germany and Ava in 1989 in New York City. My favorite parts were about Ilse and Renate. They were the best of friends until the Nazi party comes between them. Renate was definitely my favorite character. I loved reading about her and her family. I can't imagine what school was like for her. It's hard to believe people really acted that way. I felt the complete opposite about Ilse. She was a horrible human being and had no redeeming qualities. Ilse didn't know what it was to be a friend or a mother. I had no good feelings about her. The scene with the baker was truly awful. The book had me feeling every emotion. It was beautifully written. I loved the story, characters and writing style. I look forward to reading more books by the author. I received a complimentary copy of this book from Crown Publishing through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
Ava gets a package from her estranged mother, Ilsa....only to discover she has passed. The package is letters that her mother had written to Renate and Epstein takes us back to Germany and World War 2 when Renate and Ilsa were attending school together. Deep complicated book at gives a close personal view of Germany at the beginning of the war. When 2 girls are just going to school and stopping for treats on the way home......and then Hitler started with new party lines and rejecting the Jews.....so what happens to the two little girls. Can't say I enjoyed reading Wunderland but I really appreciate seeing the war from these little girls eyes and how it changed their lives forever. Great job Jennifer Cody Epstein. I received an Advanced Reader Copy of this book from the publisher and am voluntarily reviewing it
This story switches back and forth between Berlin in 1933, and the East Village 1989. It is about Ilse, growing up in Berlin, and her best friend Renate. Although her family doesn't practice it, Renate discovers her lineage is partly Jewish. When she discovers this, Ilse renounces their friendship, and goes on to betray Renate and her family in the worst way possible. Years later, Ilse's daughter Ava discovers letters written to Renate by her newly-deceased mother and attempts to uncover missing pieces of her past and hopefully answers as to why her mother always kept her at arms=length. I had trouble really getting into the book at first, but once I did I couldn't put it down. It was equally horrifying and captivating. I felt immersed in the story, as if I were actually there watching it all unfold. It is very hard to read (emotionally) but was well worth it. 1 like
Secrets, Love, and Betrayal in WWII In 1989 Ava receives her mother’s ashes and a packet of unsent letters. She has always had a fraught relationship with Ilse. Her mother seemed hard and distant. Ava can’t get close to her and then there’s the question of who Ava’s father was and why Ilse left her in a German orphanage for almost two years at the end of WWII. The story is told from the point of view of Ava in 1989 and Ilse in 1933. Ilse’s part of the story deals with her close friendship with Renata, who turns out to have Jewish blood, and her increasing involvement in the Hitler youth movement. Although the characters are separated by over 50 years and reside in different countries, the story line is easy to follow. The book starts slowly. At first the relationship between the main characters is unclear, but as Ilse and Renata face the terrors of life in Hitler’s Germany, the story heats up. Although I didn’t care for Ilse I could understand the pressures of her life in Germany. Ava grows through the novel. As she understands her mother better, she finds that she can in some measure forgive. If you enjoy novels with at WWII background, this is a very good one. At times it’s hard to read because of the inhumanity in Germany at the time. However, it’s worth the effort. I came to understand the era better, as did Ava. I received this book from First to Read for this review.
You might know the history of the the growth of Nazism in Germany, however this novel brings it to life with a stark and sickening realism. The result is an intense chilling account of the ramifications of Nazism on life in Germany, as it became fully embraced by the German populace, especially the youth in the 1930’s. The unveiling of the relationship between childhood friends Ilse, Renate and Franz will break your heart. The novel also has some surprise twists as well in the story of Ilse and her daughter Ava. I have to applaud Jennifer Epstein for writing not only a suspenseful novel that will keep you on your toes,but one one that will shake you to your core.
This was a great read. The main story is told from letters written by Ilse, given to her daughter after she had passed. The story switches between time frames of four women, Ilse, Renate, Ava and Sophie. We follow along the lives of the main characters, Ilse and Renate (best friends from childhood) as they take very different paths during WWII since Renate is found to have Jewish lineage. Then we switch back to the younger years and livelihood of Ava, Ilse’s daughter, her troubled youth caused by her mother’s actions and as she finally learns the truth of who her father was by reading these letters written by her mother. This is a story of love, hate, secrets, lies, miss-understandings, bad choices, sacrifices and not learning from mistakes done unto you. The research done for this story was impeccable from what I could tell, of course I am not a historian, but it was all very believable. Sometimes going from the letters of Ilse to Ava’s adventures was a bit confusing but all and all this is a very good story. Learning of the methods of the Hitler youth training (Girl Scouts) was especially interesting. The ending tidies up all the loose ends and makes it all worth it and is very well done. I highly recommend, even though I still can’t figure out how Wunderland would be the title. I must have missed something along the way. I was given an advanced copy from Crown Publishing through Net Galley for my honest review, this one gets 5*****’s.
Wunderland by Jennifer Cody Epstein is a Historical Fiction story of love, friendship and tragedy. The story is told in various time periods from the 1930‘s to the 1980‘s. It shows in detail how both Jewish and non Jewish Germans were affected by Nazi policies and propaganda. The book helps the reader to understand if possible the evil of the Nazi Regime and magnitude of destruction in the lives of people for over fifty years. It reminded me to ask myself what I may have done in the same situations. It also reminded me to beware of other movements that may have the appearance of good but in reality their purpose may be evil. I hope there may be a sequel and other books by this author to look forward to reading. My thanks to the author, publisher and netgalley for making this exceptional book available for me to read, enjoy and review.
This one had a slow start. I actually started it months ago, but just couldn't get into it until this past weekend. It takes off around page 80 or so and doesn't let up until near the end. Wunderland explores the indoctrination of children into the Nazi party — how just a few whispered words can destroy friendships and separate families, and in the end, the lies we tell ourselves when forgiveness can not be given.
Wunderland is a beautifully written story about two friends, Renate and Ilse, and their struggle to fit and survive during time in Germany, when Nazism was growing and spreading like wildfire. Both girls face impossible and horrifying situations. They have to make choices with which consequences they will have to live for the rest of their lives. This was a hard book to read for me. I have connected with both, Renate and Ilse, on a personal and emotional level and reading their stories was heart wrenching at times. I loved Renate’s character and I rooted for her and her family, while I tried so hard to understand Ilse’s choices and actions. It is so easy to dislike Ilse and all she stands for. Her actions and her way of justifying them was making me sick and uncomfortable. There were times when I had to put the book down, and reflect on what I just read. The things we tell ourselves and the things we lie about to make our crimes bearable are astonishing. However, Ilse’s justification for her actions was always “sacrifices have to be made”, which is so unnerving and horrifying when those sacrifices affect other people’s lives and many times are death and life situations. I have read many historical fiction books and it gets to be a little challenging now to find a book that will introduce a new insight into the WWII time period. Wunderland surprised me with a new perspective and I was completely engrossed in the story. I highly recommend this book to all historical fiction genre readers. Thank you Netgalley, Crown Publishing, and the author, Jennifer Cody Epstein, for giving me an opportunity to read an ARC of this brilliant book in exchange for my honest opinion.