If you’re looking for something light and breezy to take along on Summer vacation, I recommend Frank Deford’s new novel. Set at the 1936 Berlin Olympics on the eve of WWII – Bliss, Remembered is, among other things, an all-American coming of age story.
When Sydney ‘Trixy’ Stringfellow’s father dies she dives into the local river, starts swimming and doesn’t stop. She’s surprised to learn that she’s pretty good at it. Better than pretty good. Sydney enters a local competition, one thing leads to another, and before long she finds herself part of the 1936 U.S. Swim Team headed for Berlin. There she meets and falls in love with a handsome young German… which is when things really get interesting!
Bliss, Remembered contains an impressive cast of historical figures, both famous and infamous. Included are Bandleader Art Jarrett, his wife the Olympic swimmer Eleanor Holm Jarrett (who despite being featured in the novel is probably the inspiration for Sydney), and Hitler’s filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Deford uses them in supporting roles and they, along with an array of fascinating and quirky historical details, make it all too easy for readers to lose themselves in the period and setting. A particularly powerful moment is when Sydney describes being at the closing ceremony of the Berlin games. After the spectacle of trumpeters, a sky filled with rockets and spotlights, 52 girls dressed in white holding the flags of 52 nations, the extinguishing of the Olympic flame (the first appearance of which was at the 1936 Olympics), and a choir singing ‘Friends, farewell’ –
“…the music faded away, softly, softly, until it was quiet again. I was breathless from all the beauty, Teddy. In fact, at first, I don’t think I even noticed it, I was so lost in my own reverie, but somewhere in the stadium a chant began, and it grew and grew and grew: ‘Sieg heil,’ it went. ‘Sieg heil, unserem führer, sieg heil.’ Over and over, all these right arms outstretched and raised. And louder and louder until it became a roar. ‘Sieg heil, unserem führer, sieg heil.’…
…But here’s the thing: as soon as it died out, I pretty much forgot that part. It’s like: who remembers ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ after the ballgame is over? When it was done, it was gone, and I only kept thinking about everything beautiful that’d come before. ‘Vas you dere, Charlie?’ Ya, I vas dere, Teddy, but I still didn’t get it. And neither did anyone else.
“You see, the irony was that as far as the future was concerned, the only part of that whole beautiful evening that’d ever mean anything was the end. ‘Sieg heil, unserem führer, sieg heil.’ The rest was just cotton candy…”
Deford get’s the little things – like what a young girl in love would make of Nazi Germany prior to the start of WWII – convincingly right. The whole atmosphere feels authentic, and because of it I completely bought into Bliss, Remembered. I was behind Sydney at every step of her journey. When she was separated from her German lover, Horst, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. When a new romantic interest appeared, a sweet and vulnerable boy from Brooklyn, I was completely torn. I couldn’t wait to find out how Sydney’s story would end. But the charm of Bliss, Remembered is that it is more than a love story. It is also a sports novel, a historical novel and a war novel. There’s even a bit of espionage thrown into the mix.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure everyone will find the novel to their tastes. If you’ve ever listened Frank Deford’s sports commentary on NPR you’re already familiar with the folksy tone in which Bliss, Remembered is written. The two narrators, Sydney and her son Teddy, sound an awful lot like Deford – and are subsequently almost indistinguishable from each other. At times I questioned why Deford included Teddy at all, as the character doesn’t contribute a whole lot in terms of plot or structure other than to repeat word-for-word Sydney’s story. In point of fact, I found the interaction between mother and son intrusive on the narrative. And if you don’t like colloquialisms, the dialogue can quickly wear thin (Sidney repeatedly asks ‘what the kids are calling it these days’).
But, if you like Deford’s style (which I do) then you’ll like this book. Sydney, a heroine in every sense, definitely falls into the spunky category. Spitfire, sassy, smart, saucy, refreshing and impudent are other adjectives that come to mind. And she tells one hell of a story: spacing it out, building the suspense like a pro and always leaving her audience wanting more.
So go throw on some Artie Shaw… or, better yet, The Andrew Sisters singing Bei Mir Bistu Shein. Grab a copy of Bliss, Remembered, a tall glass of ice tea and enjoy the summer.
Publisher: The Overlook Press, New York (2010)
ISBN: 978 1 59020 359 0