First published in Hungary in 2010, in the U.S. in 2016
My rating: 3.5 out of 5
Image from Goodreads
*Thank you to NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for giving me a free copy in exchange for an honest review!
The Short Of It:
Holocaust survivors turned penpals make for a delightfully unconventional love story. This book wasn't perfect, but the story was definitely intriguing -- made even more so by the fact that it's based on the author's own parents!
The Long Of It:
As an avid letter-writer myself, I have a bit of a thing for epistolary novels; all the better when the story is inspired by real people -- concentration camp survivors at that -- falling in love through an exchange of letters.
"Fever at Dawn" is based on the unorthodox 1945 romance of Gárdos's parents, Miklos and Lili, Hungarian Jews who survived untold horrors during the Holocaust. They were recuperating in separate hospitals in Sweden when a letter written by Miklos sparked a penpal exchange. The two began to fall in love through their correspondence, sometimes sending two letters a day, and their bond was solidified when they finally finagled a way to meet in person.
Sometimes the essence of a novel can get lost when translated from its original language -- in this case Hungarian -- and I think that happened just a little bit here, especially in the letters, the wording of which was a bit awkward at times. But overall, I enjoyed getting a taste of a different culture (really, two cultures, since the book took place in Sweden) and a unique take on a WWII story, where the appalling things the characters endured were briefly mentioned but not the focus of the story. Instead, it was about getting well, getting home, reuniting and moving on. And, for Miklos, finding a wife.
While I definitely enjoyed the plot and the letters and the idea of the characters -- these intrepid survivors who are just trying to put the past behind them -- I never really warmed up to the characters themselves. And the book was fairly short -- too short, I thought. I wanted so much more; I wanted every event to be expounded and I was left with many unanswered questions. But perhaps Gárdos shied away from dramatizing the lives of Miklos and Lili since they're his own parents; it would be difficult to fictionalize two people you're so very close to. But at the same time, their child should be the one person who could paint a picture of their personalities better than anyone, and I didn't feel like I really knew Lili and Miklos by the end of the book.
Even with the flaws this historical fiction novel was worth a read, especially for fans of books told partly through letters. And I'm glad to know this fascinating real-life story of a letter bringing two Jewish refugees together at exactly the time they needed a little extra love in their lives.