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“Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed” by Leslie Maitland

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Family History

CROSSING THE BORDERS OF TIME

A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed

By Leslie Maitland Other Press. 494 pp. $27.95

Leslie Maitland grew up listening to stories of her mother, Janine, falling madly in love. The love object wasn’t her father but another man: Roland. They met as teenagers during the 1940s in occupied France. Roland was pursuing one of Janine’s friends, who would read Roland’s love letters aloud and mock them. But Janine wasn’t laughing, she was swooning: She “heard them and never recovered,” Maitland writes.

In “Crossing the Borders of Time,” Maitland turns her meticulous eye as a former New York Times investigative reporter upon the facts of her mother’s love life. Unwilling to let family lore go unsubstantiated, she tracks down documents, letters, photos and more to piece together the details of her mother’s family’s flight from the black forest of southwestern Germany, through France — eventually escaping from Marseille “at the very last conceivable moment” — to Cuba and then settling in New York.

Just as Janine and Roland are falling for each other in Mulhouse, France, the family picks up and moves farther south to flee the Nazis. Janine is devastated but later overjoyed when they run into each other in Lyon, where Roland is studying. The spark takes some work to rekindle, but by the time Janine’s family is leaving France for good, the young couple are inseparable, promising to marry after the war, even though Janine’s parents disapprove because Roland isn’t Jewish.

By the time Janine’s family resettles in New York, she tries to move on. But even on the day she marries Leonard Maitland, Roland is still very much in her thoughts, reuniting with him being “a dream as elusive as a butterfly that hovered over the vows she would take.” It’s a dream that Janine often vocalized, provoked by her husband’s “needy compulsion to enchant other women.”

“There could be serious danger here in my meddling,” Maitland writes as she sets off on the task of telling her mother’s story, worried that doing so might result in more pain than closure. “Though my mother had long since abandoned all hope she would see him again, Roland continued to serve as her anchor.” But there’s another danger in the storytelling itself: Why tell the reader from the very beginning that these lovers will be reunited? The subtitle kills the suspense — “A True Story of War, Exile and Love Reclaimed.” There’s a beautiful story here, even if, at nearly 500 pages, it’s a bit verbose at times. I just wish I hadn’t known where the arc ended before cracking the first page.

— Lisa Bonos

bonosl@washpost.com

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