I began the first fifty pages of The Sweetness of Forgetting with a sense of disappointment. Kristin Harmel, it seemed, had gathered together some of the most popular elements of recent women’s fiction and rolled them into one: a small Cape Cod town, a bakery, an unpleasant divorce, a cute, young handyman with a heart of gold, an angsty preteen, a grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s, and a French World War II Holocaust back story, reminiscent of Sarah’s Key and a spate of other recent historical fiction novels.
Luckily, however, I continued reading.
The Sweetness of Forgetting tells the unlikely story of Hope McKenna-Smith, a thirty-six year old divorcée and mother who runs her ailing French grandmother Rose’s bakery. Disillusioned with her life, which has not gone as she would have planned, Hope lives day-to-day with a certain dispassionate monotony. Then, one afternoon, her Mamie hands her a perplexing list of names and asks her to research these individual’s fates, even if it takes a transatlantic voyage.
Torn between the reality of her grandmother’s condition and her financial straits, Hope ultimately travels to Paris, where she uncovers a seventy-year-old family mystery waiting to be unraveled.
While the discovery of her grandmother’s hidden Jewish heritage and involvement in the Parisian round-ups of the Veldrome d’Hiver waxes conventional, Harmel surprised even me with her inclusion of an Islamic community which harbors Rose and ultimately allows her to escape war-torn France. Although I studied WWII-era France in rather deep detail in college and as a graduate student, I had never heard of this act of rebellion, which I discovered was historically accurate. This point, I felt, changed my initial impression of The Sweetness of Forgetting. Harmel uses this less-studied chapter of history to imbue her book with an overarching message of inter-religious tolerance and cooperation which ultimately sets it apart in this crowded genre.
Like the plot, the novel’s characters grow in complexity and heart as the book progresses, eventually exceeding their stereotypical beginnings.
The Sweetness of Forgetting pulls together in the end like a warm embrace, while leaving its readers with much to ponder, from the nature of love, family dynamics, psychological trauma, and Alzheimer’s to the possibility of inter-religious harmony.