Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Friday, 9 August 2013

The Ambassador's Daughter - Pam Jenoff

'Nothing is ever quite the same after you've been elsewhere, is it?'

We meet Margot Rosenthal and her father in London, and follow them to Paris in 1919, where her academic Papa Professor Rosenthal is assisting in an advisory capacity as a diplomat with the conference where the world's leaders have come together to try and move forwards after World War I. The bulk of the story is set in Paris and Versailles, and the final part is set back in Berlin, where Margot's Jewish family is from.

It is her days in Paris that will change Margot's life and her view of the world. There she meets Krysia, an enigmatic pianist who Margot is drawn to, feeling lonely and seeking friendship in this unfamiliar city where she is still regarded by many as the enemy. She also meets Captain Georg Richwalder, a handsome young naval officer who served in the war and is now working with the German delegation at the conference. There is an immediate and strong mutual attraction between Margot and Georg, but Margot holds back, feeling guilty that back home, her wounded fiancé Stefan is waiting for her. She is torn between her duty and commitment to him, made in haste pre-war, and the newfound, more passionate emotions she feels for Georg. She spends many hours working with him, assisting with translating some key documents.

Through the changes in Georg, as observed by Margot, Pam Jenoff writes perceptively of how innocent young men were irrevocably changed by their experiences in the war:

'"I was studying at university when the war broke out." His eyes have a faraway look and his voice sounds like mine when I speak of travel. I see him then as a boy, wide-eyed and bright with a future in front of him. He is so broken now, like so many others. I am seized by the urge to take him into my arms. Can he be healed or is he too far gone?'

Georg is only in his mid twenties now, but feels like an older, broken man in some ways. His work at the conference has given him some purpose again, as he searches desperately for some good to have come from the war; 'It has to have meant something, doesn't it?' The story also touches on the restrictions on a woman's life and choices back then. 

Margot is very close to her father, her mother having passed away years before as she understands it. Yet she suspects that her father keeps things from her, as she herself has now begun to keep things from him. Their relationship is subject to much change and damage as the story unfolds. 

'There is no one in the world to whom I feel closer than Papa. Yet despite our deep affection, there are vast areas of darkness, things unsaid, parts of ourselves that we cannot share. Once upon a time the idea of keeping secrets from Papa was unfathomable...Our trust is a thread that, once pulled at, is swiftly unraveling.'

Margot makes for a flawed, passionate, interesting and at times frustrating lead character. The narrative is written in the first-person, so we have only her take on everything, and she is at times very independent, yet at other times quite naïve and uncertain of herself. Her inadvertent mention to new acquaintances introduced to her via Krysia of matters that she ought to have kept to herself leads to her being blackmailed and becoming embroiled in deception involving those she cares about, leading to a heavy sense of guilt and anxiety.

Her relative youth and inexperience is reflected in the way she struggles to commit to one course of action, and a lot of the narrative has her debating internally as to what course she ought to take. When her fiancé Stefan re-enters her life, there is a sense that he is a 'long outstanding bill, now come due', a rushed commitment in her past, made too quickly due to the war, that she now feels obliged to fulfill, not through feelings of love but through duty and guilt. I could sympathise to some extent about her indecision though, and her conflicting feelings; after all, she is only twenty years old. By the end of the story though, she begins at last to find her own strength.

Although I wasn’t sure about aspects of the events towards the end - one in particular felt just too convenient in a way - overall I did really enjoy becoming immersed in this historical tale with its romance and mystery; I was intrigued as to what path Margot would take, and how the different plots that made up the novel would develop and conclude. In particular it was interesting to read something set at this pivotal time in history, and in these history-laden cities, facing up to the aftermath of the Great War. There is a hint that Georg, so unhappy by the conference’s conclusions, is leaning towards certain sympathies in Germany at that time, and bearing in mind Margot’s religion, I wonder if this is taken up again in Kommandant’s Girl, to which this novel is the prequel, and which I will try to read one day.

This is a good tale weaving together a key point in history with romance, mystery, desire and love versus loyalty and duty, with lies and secrets, dangerous encounters, and self-discovery; a young woman finding herself, making friends, learning who she can and cannot trust, and falling in love. It boasts an attractive, atmospheric cover design, too.

Published by Harlequin Mira

Thanks to Sophie at ED PR for kindly sending me a copy of this novel to read and give an honest review.

You can find the author on twitter @PamJenoff and visit her website here.


  1. A big fan of historical fiction as you know, this sounds like my kind of read. Great review, thanks for the recommendation.

    1. Thanks for commenting Tracy, this could certainly be up your street too.

  2. Nice review, Lindsay. The book seems to look at an important historical moment through the eyes of its characters. Nice to know that it is part of a series. After reading your review, I am getting tempted to read the book. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    1. Thanks for the kind comment Vishy. I think I'll try the next book at some point.

  3. Lovely review. I like the cover of the book, and the story sounds interesting too

    1. Thanks for commenting Melinda. Yes I thought the cover was really attractive.


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