Living with Strangers
by Elizabeth Ellis
I gave this 4 stars.
When her brother Josef suddenly leaves the family home for no apparent reason, young Madeleine Feldman is bereft and unable to function normally. As the only remaining middle child, she feels his absence more deeply than her siblings and now finds herself isolated from the family unit. Her school and home life suffer as she drifts from one bad decision to another and the relationship with her parents, particularly her mother, seems irreparable. It is this lack of direction that sees her move to France to accept a position as a nanny, a job for which she has neither training nor any great yearning to pursue. Yet, it is the distance that she needs to become independent and lead her own life, away from the disapproving glances and comments at home.
Another unfortunate relationship ends as she finds herself pregnant and seeking a new job and new surroundings. Luckily she finds both with a lovely French couple in need of help and who then offer her the support she requires to bring up her child. With little family contact, other than with her youngest sister, Sophie, she builds a happy life for herself and her daughter in France. Her world is upset when she receives a package from Josef’s partner, informing her that he has disappeared yet again. At the same time she learns that her father is seriously ill and takes it upon herself to find her brother and reunite the family before it is too late.
Europe, in the 1960’s and 70’s, is still coming to terms with the aftermath of the war, there are still stigmas attached to being a German family in London, and Maddie’s father has kept many facts of his life a secret in order to bring up his family in peace. Attitudes are changing and Maddie is in the midst of the ‘revolution’, yet still unable to account for all of the events of her family’s past. Her poor decisions and lack of direction in life all stem from the time of Josef’s departure and how he was so suddenly removed from her life and everything she understood. Her relationship with her mother is painful to see, (but is well explained later in the story) yet Maddie now doesn’t feel as though she belongs or fits in any longer, her role has become superfluous, leaving her with no other option than to flee herself.
The struggles that Maddie has to face are handled with care and empathy. It is easy to understand her point of view, but at the same time you wish for her to just say something. Her only outburst doesn’t achieve its desired intentions and she becomes more withdrawn than ever from her family. The French couple seem to offer her the type of relationship that she yearns for, but there is always a niggling doubt that things would have been different at home, if only Josef hadn’t gone.
When she returns home, albeit with some reluctance, she is called up to unite the family. Her position as the middle child now seems to have become a pivotal role, one upon which everyone is now relying to restore the lost connections and make everything good. As an adult, and a mother, Maddie can now appreciate the circumstances under which her parents felt obliged to manage. Their past lives had made them react in the only way they knew how and now Maddie is to be the one to confirm their validity and try to mend old wounds.
The story is written with great conviction, it is neither overly dramatic nor action-packed, but it does feel real. It’s a gentle, thoughtful tale, set in an age where great prejudices still thrived alongside a willingness to move on and reform.
Do we really know the people with whom we spend our lives?
Are we not all living with strangers to some extent?