The Puzzle King, by Betsy Carter. Published 2009 by Algonquin. Fiction.
Betsy Carter's latest novel, The Puzzle King, is based in part on her own family's story of a late ancestor who came to America from Germany in the early 1900s and then returned in the mid-1930s to save hundreds of German Jews from the growing anti-Semitism that would lead to the Holocaust. Most of the book is the fictionalized story of Simon and Flora Phelps, who come to America as children, grow up, assimilate, marry, and make a life, and it's pleasant and interesting enough.
Simon is a gifted artist who soon finds work in the burgeoning advertising industry; he falls in love with Flora, who comes to America with her beautiful sister Seema. While Flora is traditional- marrying a nice Jewish boy, joining the sisterhood at the local synagogue- Seema is a wild child who changes her name to something "less Jewish" and becomes the mistress of a Waspy charmer. Over time Simon becomes a very successful inventor of puzzles and games, giving him and Flora the means to travel and enjoy life. But in the mean time, all of them worry about their families back in Germany. Simon hasn't heard from his since he left years ago, and while Flora and Seema stay in touch with their sister, mother and niece, trouble is brewing in Europe as the 1930s wear on and decisions must be made.
This novel is the second of Carter's that I've read; her 2007 novel Swim to Me was one that I liked but didn't admire. I'm actually a little cooler to The Puzzle King, believe it or not, despite thinking that the writing was a little better in this one. I like how Carter portrays the different paths the sisters take and the tensions between them; I think she has a real gift for portraying troubled family relationships- that's what I liked best about Swim to Me. But I feel like she spends too much time on ordinary and unremarkable elements of the story and rushes the most interesting part- the story of how Flora saves all of those people- and doesn't do it justice. I was also surprised by the way the question of Seema's fate is dropped. And I wish that Simon's family was given a larger role; since it's fiction, Carter could have invented something more for him.
The strength of the book lies in its characters and relationships, although there was enough plot to keep me going, especially towards the end. I think of Carter as a writer of light fiction and I think her audience here is going to be readers of light fiction, Jewish fiction and immigrant stories. If that sounds like you, dive in.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.