The BookLife Prize

Idea: A story within a story within a story, The Other Mrs. Samson reconstructs the lives of Ralph Webster’s friend Katie, a postwar German émigré, her husband Josef Samson, a Jewish doctor forced to flee his affluent Berlin home due to Hitler’s rise to power, and Josef’s first wife Hilda, who was raised in an atmosphere of wealth and privilege in turn-of-the-century San Francisco until love made her cross an ocean to start married life with the man she adored. Part history and part mystery, the tale unfolds in a series of different voices as Ralph, Hilda, Josef and Katie tell the tale.

Prose/Style: The book is historically very well-researched and is artfully crafted to withhold crucial plot points from the reader until the moment of revelation is right. The story reads like a mystery, and there are enough plot twists and turns to surprise the reader, who is never entirely able to anticipate where the action will go.

Originality: The Other Mrs. Samson is not a Holocaust memoir of the type that the reader may expect. Some of the mysteries the book sets up – for example, the fate of the painting that disappears en route to New York – are never cleared up, but this, if anything, only serves to enhance the narrative’s realism.

Character Development/Execution: If there is criticism to be made here, it is that the author does not make it sufficiently clear which portions of the text are taken verbatim from the writings of its principal characters – Katie, Hilda, and Josef – and which are his own fictive reconstructions based on such writings. The techniques of the “nonfiction novel” are very much in evidence, but it is left up to the reader to decide how much of this smoothly-unspooling yarn is based on first-person source material.

The BookLife Prize, February, 2021

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