An odyssey of discovery

Two couples – in different decades and on different continents – undergo an intense journey to love.

A letter and a stamp send one couple on an international journey (photo credit: Courtesy)
A letter and a stamp send one couple on an international journey
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s a mystery. It’s an adventure story. It’s a series of the most unexpected, shocking and moving surprises.
The Lost Letter
, by Jillian Cantor, is about two simultaneous tales. One deals with the fears of a Jewish family living in a tiny, remote town in Austria in 1938, who in their small way fight the Nazis. The other concerns a woman living in Los Angeles 50 years later who uncovers a secret, which eventually leads her to return to her Jewish roots.
This novel is about serendipity and a man and a woman who follow leads unwaveringly until their efforts bear fruit, bringing joy into the lives of others. But, most of all, at the center of the novel are two beautiful love stories involving two seemingly star-crossed couples, whose love overcomes all obstacles.
The action bounces between Austria in 1938-39 and Los Angeles in 1989-1990.
In Austria, Kristoff is apprenticed to a Jewish stamp engraver and falls in love with the engraver’s daughter, Elena. Then, Adolf Hitler’s hordes invade, complicating their lives, as the two surreptitiously forge papers, risking everything to help Jews and others escape the death trap that Nazi-controlled Austria had become.
Meanwhile, the action shifts to Los Angeles. Soon-to-be-divorced Katie Nelson finds her father’s stamp collection in her home, while her father, suffering from dementia, is living in a nursing home. In house-emptying mode, she takes the collection to be appraised. Philatelist Benjamin Grossman finds an unusual stamp affixed to a sealed envelope, which had not been mailed.
That stamp takes them on an odyssey of discovery and a physical journey, including stopovers in Wales and Germany immediately following the breaching of the infamous Berlin Wall.
Undaunted by seemingly impossible tasks, the two stumble onto a story of courage and love.
Novelists who write a book that starts enigmatically, as this one does, walk a fine literary line. To keep the reader’s interest the writer must continuously reveal bits and pieces of the plot.
But the question is the pace of the revelations. If everything comes too quickly, the book will either be extremely short or extremely padded with extraneous information. But if the pace of those disclosures is too slow and drawn out, the reader may simply grow impatient and put the book aside.
Getting it right is an art, and Cantor is an artist. She got me from that first page, and I stayed hooked throughout.
It’s not just that Cantor kept me interested – she got me involved emotionally with the story. I must admit that on two occasions, I was so astounded and overjoyed by what was happening that I felt myself tearing up. Only the thought that I was an old, foolish sentimentalist and that I was being carried away by fiction permitted me to regain control of myself.
As you have probably gathered by now, I liked the book. If you’re also an old – or young – sentimentalist, you might enjoy it, too. ■
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available online.