It is 1945 and the place is Weisbaden, Germany. The Germans have lost the war and the country is in ruins. The people struggle to find food and everyone is desperate to survive. Anna Klein has left her home and her husband in the Russian-occupied part of the country for the safer American-occupied part to try to hide a dark secret that threatens her life and that of her six-year-old daughter Amalia. Finding shelter with an elderly friend, she gets a job as a typist for the Monuments Men, who are trying to find and restore the art that was stolen by the Nazis and preserve the important architecture that was damaged.
When it is discovered that she speaks English and knows about art, Anna becomes the assistant and translator for the American Captain Cooper and accompanies him as he seeks stolen treasures and examines buildings. When they discover a hidden cache of art in an abandoned villa, strange things begin to happen and a mystery unfolds. Meanwhile, Anna keeps her secret, which is barely hinted at for much of the book, and yearns for her husband to find them.
It is hard to believe that The Roses Underneath is a debut novel. It is so well-written and the characters and story engage the reader so immediately and keep the reader engrossed for the entire book that one would think this author had been writing for a very long time. But this is Yelmen’s first novel. We can only hope there will be many more.
It is so evocative of its time and place and you will care intensely about Anna and her daughter and will feel deep sympathy for many other characters in the book as well. It is an electrifying portrayal of what happens to the people of a country when horrible things are done in their name whether they will it or not.
At a time when the publicity for the movie The Monuments Men is stirring interest, this book sheds another perspective on the subject. It is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in historical novels.