Faith and Beauty by Jane Thynne
I was so glad that Jane Thynne extended her Clara Vine series of books beyond the original planned trilogy. This series, centred in 1930s Berlin, with heroine Anglo-German actress-spy Clara, are so thrilling – each addition becomes a must-read for me.
You can catch up on my thoughts about the previous three, plus two Q&A posts with Jane Thynne by clicking HERE.
Jane’s clever angle on living in the Third Reich concentrates on telling the story of the build up to WWII in Germany through those close to power, but not the military. It’s the Nazi wives and girlfriends that present a different perspective that really catches our attention.
We start at the ‘Faith and Beauty Society’ – this was the elite finishing school for girls aged 17-21 run by the BDM (Bund Deutsche Mädel – The League of German Girls).
Every girl applying to the Faith and Beauty Society must be blonde and blue-eyed – the precise colour was measured against an eye chart containing sixty different shades – but there was no actual stipulation that they must also be beautiful, which was fortunate for Hedwig, whose moon-like face was earnest, rather than exquisite, and whose mousy hair could only be called blonde by a vivid stretch of the imagination.
The girls gather several times a week to be ‘educated in the finer points of civilisation’. This was a society for young women who aspired to become SS Brides – ‘the Third Reich’s Vestal Virgins’. They are not just taught about the arts and conversation, pistol practice is also on the menu and Hedwig’s only friend, Lotti, her beautiful physical opposite has not turned up. Clara knew Lotti slightly and when her body turns up Clara feels compelled to investigate quietly.
Clara continues to move in high circles – and on a rare trip back to England to visit her family, her handlers had asked her to try to get close to the von Ribbentrops, to find out any information on whether Germany was planning to ally with the Russians:
…Major Grand’s words resounding in her head. ‘From what we’ve heard, Frau von Ribbentrop frequently formulates political policy, which is later passed off a her husband’s.’ It was true, the Foreign Minister’s wife was very different from those of other senior men. Magda Goebbels was too depressed to care about politics and Evan Braun, the Führer’s girlfriend, probably couldn’t spell Czechoslovakia. The only international affairs Frau Goering cared about were holidays on the Italian Riviera. Annelies von Ribbentrop, by contrast, was highly educated and politically motivated. She dominated her husband and insisted he discuss every decision with her. She knew more, and would impart far less. How could Clara possibly find a way into her mind?
Clara has also been personally chosen by film director Leni Riefenstahl to star in her new film as the spirit of Germania. Riefenstahl’s choice of Clara in part being a deliberate wind-up of Goebbels who would ‘want some buxom Nordic blonde to present it.’ It would be the biggest film part of Clara’s career so far, but she manages to persuade them to let her go to Paris in the middle of filming to be photographed for Vogue (and liaising with her handlers of course.)
As always, there will be a handsome German officer to throw spanners in the works and it so happens that the fascinating Conrad Adler has an artistic soul having been seconded to the Foreign Ministry to help appropriate paintings and deal with degenerate art.
Thynne cleverly blends in fact and fiction – using her always impeccable research to build Clara’s story around very real events such as Hitler’s 50th birthday parade which opens the novel. Marlene Dietrich gets a mention, plus this time we briefly meet Joe Kennedy and a young JFK. Characters such as American journalist Mary make welcome cameo appearances along with all the Nazi wives. We get a real feel for living under the Nazis, not just in the top circles. Hedwig’s family are not so well off and we get a flavour of what it’s like for her too for instance. Thynne is also adept at creating a visual picture of Berlin, the German countryside and the other locations.
Clara always skirts with real danger in these novels, yet manages to emerge unscathed. As war looms ever closer, the dangers are increasing. She still longs to be reunited with Leo Quinn, the spy who recruited her and became her lover in the first novel. Will Leo ever return to the picture? That would be telling.
Once more, Jane Thynne has given us another heady dose of adventure and spying combined with glamour and romance that is utterly compelling. I think the third in the series, A War of Flowers, may be my favourite so far for its insights into Eva Braun, but Faith and Beauty is also brilliant and I’m so glad that Jane didn’t stop after three books. I can’t wait for Clara’s next adventures. (9/10)
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Source: Own copy.
Faith and Beauty by Jane Thynne (a.k.a. The Pursuit of Pearls in the US), Simon & Schuster 2015. Paperback 2016, 432 pages.