Pam Jenoff, “Kommandant’s Girl”

In 1939, Emma Bau is living a peaceful, happy life with her husband Jacob; when Germany invades Poland, however, her contented world is destroyed. Her husband, an active member of the Resistance, goes into hiding, and her parents are taken to a crumbling ghetto. With help, Emma becomes Anna Lipowsky, secretary to Kommandant Richwalder. As the war continues, and Emma’s world gradually turns into Anna’s, the young woman finds herself fighting attraction to the one man in charge of annihilating her life, her family and her culture. Kommandant’s Girl is a fresh, if disturbing look at one woman’s fight for survival during World War Two.

Plot Overview: Love, Courage and Weakness

Emma Bau is 19 years old and has been married for a short six weeks when German soldiers invade her hometown of Krakow. With help from her husband’s friends, she is taken to Krysia, Jacob’s aunt and a wealthy Catholic widow, where she disguises herself as a young Christian woman, Anna. Krysia also takes in a young boy, Lukasz, the only surviving child of a famous rabbi.

As Emma embraces her role as Anna, she comes to accept Krysia and Lukasz as her new family, one she is not willing to risk or sacrifice. But when the Resistance, and Jacob, urge her to gather information on the Nazis using whatever means necessary – including manipulation, deception and lust – Emma learns the fragility of life, family and love.

Criticisms and Compliments

Kommandant’s Girl is unlike typical World War Two fiction. It does not track the experience of people in hiding; it does not follow the heroics of soldiers; it does not explore widowhood. Rather, it is a look at the bold actions – and emotional turmoil – of a young, naive newlywed. Emma, or Anna, comes across as impossibly innocent, but circumstances, and her own inexperience, force her to mature. As she embarks on a passionate affair with a Nazi, she seems to realize that love is gray, but the value of human life is black and white.

Emma is a sympathetic character in many ways, but her relationship with Kommandant Richter makes her appear, at times, as a traitor to her husband and to her faith. Jenoff has a unique, provocative plot setup with a married Orthodox Jewish woman falling in lust, perhaps even love, with a Nazi commander; Emma is Jenoff’s flawed hero, one for whom the reader feels both compassion and disgust. Kommandant’s Girl is a distinctive look at the courage and weakness that plague human actions.


  • Jenoff, Pam. Kommandant’s Girl. MIRA Books, 2007 ISBN 9780778301448

Harlan Coben, “Play Dead”

In his debut novel, Play Dead, Harlan Coben explores the world of beauty, wealth and professional basketball. In a fairytale romance, Laura Ayers, a former model turned businesswoman, elopes with David Baskin, the star player of the Boston Celtics. But when David goes missing, Laura refuses to accept his death. As she slowly unravels the truth about his disappearance, she learns that no one – not friends, not even family – can be trusted.

Plot Overview: Home, Love and Sports

For Laura, family life is difficult. A daddy’s girl at heart, she struggles to negotiate her love for her father with her resentment towards her mother and sister. For reasons unknown, Laura’s mother strongly disapproves of David Baskin, the one man to whom Laura felt free to give her heart. Her older sister, Gloria, is damaged, emotionally and physically, and Laura feels obligated to shield her from any more pain.

David, a gifted athlete, also experienced a dysfunctional home life: his father was murdered when he was a baby, and he and his unstable brother, Stan, had rough childhoods. As an adult, David is estranged from Stan and looks to his best friend, T.C., and Laura to fill the void.

Complicating matters is the arrival of a new rookie on the Celtics team, one who has David’s moves, skills and natural talent on the court. As Laura deals with grief – and suspicion over the new player – she comes to understand that people will commit horrible, foolish actions, all in the name of family.

Criticisms and Compliments

Play Dead is Harlan Coben’s first novel, and it shows. Coben acknowledges in the forward to this reissue that he has not read Play Dead since it was first published, and he admits that it has its weaknesses. Play Dead doesn’t have the smoothly written plot twists and cliffhangers of Coben’s later novels, and the writing itself can be stilted and awkward, especially in the first few chapters. But, Coben improves as the novel progresses, and, in fact, Play Dead is not a bad book. The characters are well-developed, the story is creative, the descriptions are vivid.

What makes Play Dead weak is the obvious plot line surrounding what happened to David Baskin and who the rookie on the Boston Celtics basketball team is. However, in a smart move, Coben keeps the “why” out of the equation until the end of the book. The result is a suspenseful story with an interesting, if predictable plot. For first-time Coben readers, Play Dead is not the novel to start with; for those acquainted with his work, especially the Myron Bolitar series, it is an appealing read, one that shows his raw storytelling skills.


  • Coben, Harlan. Play Dead. Signet (Reissue edition), 2010 ISBN 9780451231740