To fully understand and appreciate Jesse Bier's latest book, Transatlantic Lives, I recommend you start reading on the very last page, with the author's bio: "Jesse Bier was born and bred in Hoboken, N.J., where he entered the army in WWII, eventually serving as combat infantry squad leader in Germany. After being wounded in 1945 he met his future wife, the Sephardic French heroine of Transatlantic Lives, while on recuperative leave in Biarritz." And there you have it.
Transatlantic Lives describes itself as a love ode to Bier's wife. (She is given the fictionalized name Pépée.) The story is told through a series of vignettes, beginning with Pépée's Jewish grandmother in Turkey in 1902 during the Armenian genocide, and the family's eventual migration to France. From there, the narrative travels back and forth between continents, following a multitude of characters, hence the title. Each mini chapter is a universe in itself, and also a puzzle piece to a larger narrative, mostly about people in love, their differences and the qualities that ultimately unite them.
It can be hard to follow at times, especially if you come to the work expecting a straight, chronological story, so don't do that. There are a lot of characters to juggle, and it's not always clear how or why they connect. The author is at least a little to blame for this, but as the lovers inch closer to the war that will ultimately unite them, it becomes such an intriguing, tangled mess that it's easy to forgive. There's a calm before the storm, where Americans marvel in the beautiful simplicity of baseball statistics and pick-up football, and the Europeans are off gallivanting with Picasso, so what could go wrong? Oh right. Another World War.
One passage begins: "There were days when you might never know a war was on." This sentence contains a crucial revelation for me. My grandmother was born in 1918, and like most everyone of that generation, she experienced real sacrifice. My grandfather went overseas and came home. "We didn't call it World War II, back then," she told me. "We just called it the war." Of course. Because it was all around you, and that's just in America. For Pépée and her family hiding from Jewish persecution in France, the war was right on top of them. There would have been no day when you didn't know the war was on.
The world isn't like that anymore. There's that fiscal cliff we were supposedly all hurdling toward, but could you see it when you looked out the window? If you didn't have the internet or a television, you'd have no idea there was even a problem. I can see why people get nostalgic for a concrete world, when at least the enemy was a thing you could hold in your hands.
But I don't mean to be so dark, because remember, this is, at its heart, a touching, real-life love story, told with a lot of wit and vibrant dialogue. I was struck in particular by passages that illustrated Bier's adoration for his wife. "Even Pépée Doriac, generally the soul of veracity, could tell a big lie if her life depended on it, as when she lied to authorities (who had no authority) about her name for four years, the world rife with general hazard and holocaust threat, or when she told the particular German checkpoint officer she was not afraid of him—still, a lie all the same." And then later: "But she never told a lie, of any degree or kind, on any other occasion. She never fibbed, never lied purely for someone else's feelings, never lied merely or not-really. Mainly, she never lied—even whitely—to herself."
If the point of the story is for us to fall in love with Pépée (and maybe her chivalrous husband, if we have room in our hearts) then Transatlantic Lives succeeds. Bier is a true romantic. Comparatively, he makes the men of my generation look like slouches.