In her debut novel, Mr. Rosenblum Dreams In English, Natasha Solomons describes the baking of a baumtorte, a traditional German cake constructed by cooking and piling layers. It could be meant as metaphor: Like the dessert, the book contains a series of distinct parts that come together to create something beautiful.
The novel, which was published in the United Kingdom in April as Mr. Rosenblum’s List, follows Jewish couple Jack and Sadie Rosenblum as they settle in England after fleeing Berlin at the outset of World War II. Determined to integrate fully into his new home, Jack creates a list of characteristics of a proper British gentleman. His attempt to complete all the criteria is stymied when he can’t join a golf club because they have quotas on Jewish members. Undeterred, he sells his London home and moves to rural Dorset to build his own course.
While Jack tries to distance himself from his roots, Sadie can’t let go. She’s stricken by survivor’s guilt, mourning a brother and mother killed by the Nazis, torn by the pain of remembering them and the knowledge that as time goes by, those memories will fade. Her sorrow is deeply felt, but never overwhelms the largely cheery book. It produces beautiful tender moments between her, Jack, and their daughter, Elizabeth, as they find ways to remember those they’ve lost while still living in the present.
Jack’s quest is challenged by both natural and manmade disasters, pocked with painful setbacks caused by anti-Semitism, classism, and his own naïveté. The result is something between Don Quixote and Field Of Dreams. Most of the supporting characters see Jack’s project as a fool’s errand, and some actively mock or take advantage of him. But as post-war modernity begins to creep into the countryside with its ancient tradition and folklore, the course comes to symbolize a bit of magic in a gray world.
The resulting conversions and acts of kindness manage to feel sincere, due in large part to the richly developed characters. The setting also takes on a life of its own as Solomons, who lives in Dorset, paints detailed descriptions of the scent of bluebells, the sight of lambs being born, and the smells of truly fresh air. It’s a portrait tinged with nostalgia for a lovely, simple place where an exile can finally find home.