I’ve been waiting for just the right moment to read The Puzzle King for quite a while. You know how sometimes you want to read a book, but you just know you need to hold off for a little while? Maybe you just read something similar or maybe you’re just not in the right mood…I want to urge you to follow my new rule for reading: DON’T FORCE IT! Because a book will probably be better if you wait!
I picked this up at just the right time—after some non-fiction and before my (possibly) depressing book club selection. The Puzzle King is just serious enough to make the story feel worthwhile without bogging my mind down with depressing thoughts. The story begins with a 9-year-old boy named Simon whose mother has put him on a ship alone to start a new life in America. Basically the only thing he has going for him is his artistic talent; he’s a fabulous drawer and earns a reputation as such, even as a kid. A decade later, Simon meets Flora, a German immigrant who has been in the States for four years. As their relationship blossoms, the world gets complicated. As Simon and Flora’s life prospers in America, Jewish relatives in Germany are suffering under Hitler’s rule. In case you can’t tell, The Puzzle King has got a lot of dimensions to it…
First of all, the characters are fabulously developed. They each have their own defining belief system, sometimes conflicting with other characters and sometimes creating an internal conflict. These conflicts between characters are representative of much bigger conflict in the story. Carter creates a divide between one’s history and one’s present. As anti-Semitism is developing worldwide, characters in the US are torn between their European roots and their current situation in America—much of a “need we worry about what’s happening there when we’re here” mentality. Characters question what defines them as individuals—”am I defined by my country though it’s turned its back on me?”
Carter knows how to tell a good story. And the exciting part is that it’s based on her own family legend and lore! She has created her own puzzle in the narrative of The Puzzle King, interlocking family and identity with past and present. The sense of time and place is so distinct…and really troubling—the idea that you can work hard and create a successful life but knowing that others won’t have that chance, that you’re still hindered by where you came from.
My only complaint is that the story seemed to end rather abruptly. I had twenty pages left and couldn’t even imagine how the author was going to wrap it up so quickly, and I was left wondering how things turned out for several of the characters. But, maybe that was intentional—the same uncertainty that many characters like these had to live with at the time. This is the exact kind of book I’d recommend to my mom (and I will! If you’re reading, Mom, HI! Read this!). It’s more substantial than light reading but light enough to be enjoyable and give you something to think about.
Note: I found this similar in tone to Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn. So if you liked that, you’ll probably like this.