Jun 10, 2008

The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank by Ellen Feldman

In this novel’s acknowledgements, Ellen Feldman explains that when she visited the Anne Frank House in 1994, she was led to believe by a "misinformed or romantically inclined" guide that Peter van Daan was the only inhabitant of the secret annex about whom there were no records. In fact, the Red Cross does have records of his death, but this, along with the fact that in the diary he says that if he were to survive the war he'd completely reinvent himself, was enough to stimulate her imagination.

The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank imagines that Peter, Anne Frank’s closest confident, survived the war, moved to New York, and started a new life, telling absolutely no one about his past or his Jewish origins. The novel starts about ten years after the end of the war. Peter has become a successful man. He has his own business, he is married to a Jewish wife who has no idea that he too is Jewish, and he has two daughters. He avoids thinking of the past, but what he once lived through comes back to haunt him when he sees his wife reading Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl in bed one night. After that, there’s the Broadway play, and then the movie. The more time passes, the harder it is to escape Anne's story, and the more troubled Peter becomes.

I can see how a novel with this premise could easily have gone horribly wrong. It’s a daring story, but Ellen Feldman more than succeeds. I've seen the book criticized on the grounds that it doesn't try to recapture Peter's relationship with Anne, but for me that's exactly what makes it work.

The tone is exactly right, and the writing style suits the story perfectly – a lot of very strong emotions are just barely subdued; there's a quietness under which tumultuous feelings hide. The way she depicts Peter’s increasing paranoia is remarkable. As his memories of the War become harder to escape, he becomes obsessed with saving enough money to allow his family to run away in case they come back. He keeps the money in a safe at home and gets up to count it in the middle of the night. He’s also obsessed with not wasting food – there is a scene in particular that greatly touched and disturbed me. He yells at his wife and at his astonished small daughters and tells them that they don’t know what hunger is. It’s true, they don’t, and neither do I.

This book also allowed me to learn about all the events that followed the publication of Anne Frank’s book in America. I didn’t know that Otto Frank had been involved in a lawsuit. Peter’s emotional reaction to the whole thing was interesting to see, and Ellen Feldman raises some interesting question about how the diary was (and still is) received and responded to.

Each of the novel’s chapters is preceded by a citation. Some are from Anne Frank’s diary, some from Miep Gies’ Anne Frank Remembered (a book I didn’t know about until recently, when Trish reviewed it), some from other sources, and some from Carol Ann Lee’s The Secret Life of Otto Frank. This is another book I didn’t know about, but now I really want to read it. Has anyone read it? And if so, what did you think?

The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank is a remarkable story about fear, isolation, loss, the weight of memory and what it means to remember – and how perhaps we remember some things in order to forget others more easily.

Some memorable passages:
In the DP camps, if they talked about the past at all, they talked about ifs. If I had been in the front of the line that morning and not at the end. If I had hung back instead of stepping forward. If I had not been the first to start unbuttoning my pants with the SS came through the train. Gradually the ifs led to theories. I survived because I was careful. I lived because I took chances. But beneath those convictions about the effectiveness of certain behavior, going hand-in-contradictory-hand with them, was a fearsome respect for chance.

That was what the audience wanted. The triumph of the human spirit, as my wife called it. The reassurance that in spite of everything, of people going to their death by the millions merely for the accident of their birth, of other people willing and eager to pry gold fillings from their mouths before they shovelled them into ovens, of ghoulish experiments on unanaesthetized individuals in the interest of medical science, of an entire people’s bloodthirsty conspiracy to cleanse the world of another entire people, in spite of it all, human beings are good at heart.
Other Blog Reviews:
Bloggin' 'bout Books
(If you've also reviewed this one, let me know and I'll link to your post)


  1. I'm one of the three or four people on earth that didn't really care for The Diary of Anne Frank (and I mean that in comparison to some other Holocaust lit like Elie Wiesel's Night). However, this book sounds amazing! Great review. Yours is the second positive one I've read lately.

  2. Wow, I thought I was going to be the only person to post that I didn't really enjoy The Diary of Anne Frank (didn't even finish it), but I guess Andi and I have the same tastes. This book sounds fascinating though. I'd love to learn more behind the story of Anne Frank and the history that went along with the publishing of the book. I'm definitely going to put this one on my list (that one excerpt was enough to convince me). Thanks for posting about this one!

  3. Tis book sounds really good! Of course, my local library doesn't keep it (grr), but they do have Miep Gies's Anne Frank Remembered. It's a good one, a memoir.

  4. Though I've heard of this book, I didn't really know anything about it. And my assumptions were totally off-target. I'm so glad you read this, because I'm now thoroughly intrigued. It sounds like a truly wonderful book...one that I imagine had to be really tough to write. I really, really, really need to finally read Diary of a Young Girl, so I can read both this one and Anne Frank Remembered. (Trish's review sold me, too.) Thanks Nymeth, reading your reviews is always a highlight of my day!

  5. I read this when it came out a couple of years ago and it's truly an amazing story...
    "a remarkable story about fear, isolation, loss, the weight of memory (and the weight of lies) and what it means to remember – and how perhaps we remember some things in order to forget others more easily." summarizes the book perfectly.

  6. I've heard really good things about this book, and it seems like such a fascinating perspective. From what Miep Gies writes in her memoir, Peter and Margot both were quiet and shy and didn't quite interact with the others like Anne did (she made the two sound almost reclusive--probably an odd choice of word given the circumstance, but I guess more in comparison to the others in hiding who were so thirsty for any outside interaction). It has been years since I read her diary (although I recently picked it up at the store to read again), so I'm not sure what Anne writes of Peter. I'll have to put this and the other book you mention on my list. Thanks for the review, Nymeth.

  7. I always respect the balls of an attempt like this, even though they fail at least 51% of the time. Glad this one turned out ok.

  8. I'm a new reader of yours, and I'm sticking around. I really appreciated this review in particular. I've always enjoyed books about or that spring from the Holocaust. (A bit of a weird book-taste, I know.) Anyway, I'm adding this one to the TBR pile. Thanks!

  9. I enjoyed this book, too. I'm like bluestockings - I really like books about this time period, but I hate saying that out loud. It just sounds weird to say you like books about the Holocaust. Anyway, my point is, this is a good book. Thanks for the review.

  10. This book does sound daring but it seems like it was handled very well. What an interesting story line!
    Thanks for the great review!

  11. Andi and Becca, having enjoyed or even read Anne Frank's Diary is definitely not necessary for appreciating this book. I hope you both enjoy this one!

    Alessandra: It's too bad your library doesn't have it. I was thrilled when I found out that mine did! I hope you enjoy Miep's book, though. It really sounds like a good one.

    Debi: Awww, thank you :) Your posts (and your kind comments) are definitely highlights of mine too. I can't even begin to imagine how hard to write this story and to get it just right must have been, but she did such a splendid job!

    Ken: Yes, and lies - good point, as always :)

    Trish: Anne describes Peter in the diary as quiet and reclusive too, but after some time she began to get close to him and they spend a lot of time alone in the attic, talking or just hugging and being quiet together (which caused some trouble with their parents). I think you'd enjoy this book a lot!

    Raych: Yes - it definitely takes guts.

    thebluestockings: First of all, hello and welcome :) I'm glad to hear you are sticking around. If you click my "WW2" tag you'll see that I'm the same. I definitely have a soft spot for Holocaust books. I guess it's because they work as a magnifying glass for human actions and thoughts and emotions. Extreme situations reveal extreme things. I hope you enjoy this one!

    Susan, like I was telling thebluestockings, you are definitely not alone. I used to think it was a bit weird too, but ever since I started blogging I met others who find the topic interesting to read about too.

    Jaime, you're welcome :) It definitely was handled very well!

  12. I've heard good things about this one, but your review really encourages me. A tricky subject, but I want to more about Peter's "afterlife"...

  13. I just finished reading The Book Thief this week, and I've seen several other mentions of books relating to the same time period and events. I love it when that happens. Thanks for another great review!

  14. I've heard lots of good things about this book. I had kind of hoped to read it last year after reading Anne's diary but didn't get around to it. At least I know I have a good one waiting for me in the stacks. :)

  15. Jenclair, I hope you enjoy it!

    Lisa: I look forward to your thoughts on The Book Thief - I loooved that one.

    Tanabata: It's never too late :) Enjoy it!

  16. Your reviews are always so excellent. You really should get paid for this! This one is on my TBR.

  17. I definitely like the premise and it sounds like it is handled well without detracting from the original story. I will look out for this despite it being outside of my usual reading.

  18. Teddy Rose, thank you, you are much too kind. I wouldn't mind being paid in books :P

    Rhinoa, that's what I liked about it - it doesn't detract from the original story at all, nor does it try to reinvent it. It just adds to it. I hope you enjoy it if you pick it up!


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