“The Orphan’s Tale”: A Bedtime Story?

“The Orphan’s Tale”
A novel by Pam Jenoff

Two women on the run from the Nazis, one a teenage mother and the other a Jewish divorcee, find solace in each other and the circus they are forced to call home.
The main characters are Noa and Astrid.
Rating: 3/5 stars

“The Orphan’s Tale” by Pam Jenoff comes full circle. It begins with a question and ends with an answer.

In the prologue: Who is this woman, and what is she doing?

In the epilogue: This is who she is, this is what she’s doing, and here’s why.

The author leaves no stone unturned, no question lingering in the German cold from which the main character and her child barely escape.

What more could readers ask for than a clear, simple ending, with characters who serve their purpose as plot devices? Much more, in all honestly. Much more, indeed.

While a decent, quick-paced historical novel, “The Orphan’s Tale” falls short of what could have been the next “The Book Thief,” failing to transcend mere plot and enter the realm of symbolism. Like the aerialist Astrid Sorrell, who serves as one half of the narration team, told her pupil Noa, the audience didn’t pay to see them swing back and forth on the bar.

They came to see them fly.

If only Jenoff had trusted readers enough, as budding aerialist Noa had with Astrid, to leap without hesitation and with everything she has.

The novel, set during World War II, features the perspectives of two women, one’s life just beginning as she verges on adulthood, while the other brands herself seasoned, old—close to forty, ancient for her kind. Hailing from different backgrounds, Noa is a Dutch girl of cherished Aryan beauty and Astrid a German Jew whose circus performing lineage stretches more than a century. Their paths cross when both become outcasts.

In this story, the setting and the time period play second fiddle to the story itself. While the war provides background for the characters, the novel very well could have taken place in modern-day America with just a little tweaking, instead of Nazi-controlled Europe. The protagonists, though not devoid of flaws or significant characteristics, are those one might see in any other novel. They are likeable; especially Astrid with her cantankerous yet resolute personality, but plain and lacking a certain depth that creates an illusion of reality.

Everything about the novel makes perfect sense: the character motives, the plot, the ending. It is not predictable, per se. In fact, one of the high points of the book is its ability to keep readers enraptured. Rather, there isn’t much room for one’s own analysis. The two pivotal characters understand themselves and their own needs so well, in addition to each other’s, that little is left to interpretation. In some cases, it’s even anticlimactic.

It can be said that the author’s vision for the plot and the characters is too strong. Jenoff has an indisputable idea of how readers should view each aspect of her story, as any writer does, but unlike the best novelists, she doesn’t relinquish the reins once she lays the foundation. In an otherwise restricted, secretive world, the characters in the novel hold tight to what little freedom of expression and life choices they have left. It would only make sense if Jenoff loosened her grip on the story, respecting her audience to discover the hidden meaning on their own.

The author did paint a picture, but I just wasn’t feeling it,” said Donna, a Goodreads member. “The characters … they were all striving for the same thing so there wasn’t much variance there. They were all on their best behavior. While that isn’t a deal breaker, the fact that 99.9 percent of the characters were all in the same boat, made me a little less interested in this.”

Kirkus Reviews said “The Orphan’s Tale” is an “an interesting premise imperfectly executed.”

However, despite criticism, Jenoff’s World War II saga has garnered much praise from the public since its February debut. On Goodreads, a popular website for bookworms to rate and share literature with one another, it holds an impressive 4.07/5 with over 5,200 reviews and counting.

It may not occupy the list of rare, thought-provoking books about the Holocaust, but it remains a decent story line. Based off of true events, it reads like a tale told to the grandchildren, recounted so many times that the truly defining moments have slipped away, like the caboose of a circus train car.

But similar to a childhood story, “The Orphan’s Tale” delivers a polished ending, an appropriate blend of tragedy and hope, concluding the novel on a classic, youthful note: out of suffering always comes peace. While a naïve outlook, especially for a novel set during the Holocaust, there is something charming about its simplistic structure, its gooey optimism.

Light-hearted for a novel set during one of history’s darkest eras, “The Orphan’s Tale” is for anyone searching for mild, sappy entertainment, where love always finds a way and the goodness of the human spirit triumphs in the end.

Review by Megan Stewart

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