Wednesday, October 10, 2012

REVIEW: The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian


Over the course of his career, New York Times bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian has taken readers on a spectacular array of journeys. Midwives brought us to an isolated Vermont farmhouse on an icy winter’s night and a home birth gone tragically wrong. The Double Bind perfectly conjured the Roaring Twenties on Long Island—and a young social worker’s descent into madness. And Skeletons at the Feast chronicled the last six months of World War Two in Poland and Germany with nail-biting authenticity. As The Washington Post Book World has noted, Bohjalian writes “the sorts of books people stay awake all night to finish.”

In his fifteenth book, The Sandcastle Girls, he brings us on a very different kind of journey. This spellbinding tale travels between Aleppo, Syria, in 1915 and Bronxville, New York, in 2012—a sweeping historical love story steeped in the author’s Armenian heritage, making it his most personal novel to date.

When Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Syria, she has a diploma from Mount Holyoke College, a crash course in nursing, and only the most basic grasp of the Armenian language. The First World War is spreading across Europe, and she has volunteered on behalf of the Boston-based Friends of Armenia to deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the Armenian genocide. There, Elizabeth becomes friendly with Armen, a young Armenian engineer who has already lost his wife and infant daughter. When Armen leaves Aleppo to join the British Army in Egypt, he begins to write Elizabeth letters, and comes to realize that he has fallen in love with the wealthy, young American woman who is so different from the wife he lost.Flash forward to the present, where we meet Laura Petrosian, a novelist living in suburban New York. Although her grandparents’ ornate Pelham home was affectionately nicknamed the “Ottoman Annex,” Laura has never really given her Armenian heritage much thought. But when an old friend calls, claiming to have seen a newspaper photo of Laura’s grandmother promoting an exhibit at a Boston museum, Laura embarks on a journey back through her family’s history that reveals love, loss—and a wrenching secret that has been buried for generations.

Hardcover, 320 pages
Published July 17th 2012 by Doubleday
ISBN 0385534795 (ISBN13: 9780385534796)

About the Author
from his website

Chris Bohjalian has called The Sandcastle Girls the most important book he will ever write.  Published in July to great acclaim, this story of the Armenian Genocide debuted at #7 on the New York Times bestseller list, and appeared as well on the Publishers’ Weekly, USA Today, and national Independent Bookstore bestseller lists.

USA Today called it “stirring. . .a deeply moving story of survival and enduring love.”  Entertainment Weekly observed, “Bohjalian – the grandson of Armenian survivors – pours passion, pride, and sadness into his tale of ethnic destruction and endurance.”  And the Washington Post concluded that the novel was “intense. . .staggering. . .and utterly riveting.”  The Sandcastle Girls was also an Book of the Week.

He is the author of fifteen books, including the other New York Times bestsellers, The Night Strangers, Secrets of Eden, Skeletons at the Feast, The Double Bind, Before Your Know Kindness, and Midwives.

Chris's awards include the New England Society Book Award in 2012 (for The Night Strangers), the New England Book Award in 2002, and the Anahid Literary Award in 2000. His novel, Midwives, was a number one New York Times bestseller, a selection of Oprah's Book Club, a Publisher's Weekly "Best Book," and a New England Booksellers Association Discovery pick. His work had been translated into over 25 languages and three times become movies (Secrets of Eden, Midwives, and Past the Bleachers).

He has written for a wide variety of magazines, including Cosmopolitan, Reader's Digest, and the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, and has been a columnist for Gannett's Burlington Free Press since 1992. Chris graduated from Amherst College, and lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter.

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My Thoughts
When my twin brother and I were small children, we would take turns sitting on our grandfather's lap. There he would grab the rope-like rolls of baby fat that would pool at our waists and bounce us on his knees, cooing, "Big belly, big belly, big belly."
A modern day woman learns of the love story and horror kept quiet in the history of her grandparents. We discover along with her of how her grandmother Elizabeth Endicott traveled to Aleppo, Syria with her own father to offer relief to Armenian refugees. What they find when they arrive is a genocide in progress as Turks and Syrians attempt to erase the Armenian race from the earth. While in Aleppo, Elizabeth meets Armenian engineer Armen and falls in love. The novel follows their stories as their modern day granddaughter unravels their past decades later.

I am ashamed to admit that I was unaware of the Armenian genocide, which resulted in the deaths of between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians between the years of 1915 and 1923. It's heartbreaking to think of what happened to these people, the suffering of those who died, and the haunting memories carried by those who survived.

I thought the format of this book was an interesting concept. Instead of simply telling the story of Elizabeth and Armen, to have it told through their granddaughter as she discovers what happened to them in their youth. Elizabeth and Armen were very believable. The granddaughter was sort of forgettable-- a bit of a quiet voice narrating and guiding the story, but Elizabeth and Armen were meant to be the stars of the story, and I found them to be real and solid and moving. They brought the horrors of the Armenian genocide to life.

Caught up in Elizabeth and Armen's story are the stories of many other characters, including an Armenian refugee by the name of Nevart and her young charge Hatoun. Two survivors of the genocide (at least they survived during the period that Elizabeth knew them), their own story is beautiful and stirring and heart wrenching. And then there is the underlying story of the images of the refugees, captured on film plates and being smuggled to safety to assure that they survive the slaughter, to reveal to the world the truth of what is going in Aleppo. And let us not forget the tragic story of Armen's wife Karine and infant daughter.

My final word: This story was a mixture of sweetness, tragedy and horror. Elizabeth and Armen were characters that I could really care about. This novel wraps a history lesson up in an intriguing story. A robust novel full of flavors, and I will undoubtedly be tasting of author Chris Bohjalian's other works. Definitely recommended!

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My Rating: 



I received this book from Random House in exchange for my honest opinion. I was not financially compensated in any way, and the opinions expressed are my own and based on my observations while reading this novel. 

1 comment:

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One of my favourite authors, who makes each book a personal experience. True readers understand his artistry. I was unable to put this down.