Title: Café Eisenhower
Author: Richard Natale
Publisher: Bold Strokes Books
Pages/Word Count: 264 pages
At a Glance: An amazing book with two stories: one set in the 1990s, the other told through notebooks from pre/post WWII.
Reviewed By: Jennifer
Blurb: In the early 1990s, soon after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Matthew Robins, who is grieving the sudden loss of his lover, travels to Eastern Europe to claim an inheritance from a great-uncle. He discovers a world that is strange and oddly compelling. After facilitating a romance between his new friend Olga and her beloved Nina, he becomes smitten with a young local. At Olga’s urging, he uses part of his inheritance to open a gay café, runs afoul of the local authorities, and has to be rescued by his estranged brother. But perhaps his most startling and moving discovery is a series of journals in his uncle’s apartment, a thinly-veiled fictional account of a lifelong love affair between two men, a romance that survives war, genocide, and decades of Soviet repression.
Review: I absolutely adore historical fiction, but is it really fair to call this book “historical” when the bulk of the story takes place in the 1990s, just twenty-six years ago? I’m not sure what you’d call it, but it was an amazing book that focuses on one man, the narrator, Matthew, and his adventures in claiming an inheritance and finding himself after the death of his lover.
This book has so many layers. On the surface there is Matthew, who is grieving Nathaniel, his lover and his older brother’s former best friend. The brothers are at odds with each other, not just because of Matthew’s relationship with Nathaniel. When Matthew discovers they are set to inherit property from a great-uncle in Eastern Europe, his brother agrees to let him have it, and Matthew goes out on his own to claim the money and retreat from his life for some time.
When he arrives, he quickly discovers it won’t be as easy as signing some paperwork and leaving. First of all, he cannot remove the money from the country, and there’s property that cannot be sold until the current tenant passes away. So what’s Matthew to do? As he settles in to figure that out, he makes friends with Olga, who begins translation work for him, and the two discover a set of journals with an interesting story.
These journals drive the secondary story of the novel. Set pre-WWII at first, and then post, the journals are a fictionalized account of his Uncle Leonard’s life. At least, that’s what it seems. So many details match up, but there’s the curious unknown. Who is the other boy in the story? Was he real? A figment of Uncle Leonard’s imagination? Olga and Matthew set to find out.
Richard Natale does an excellent job of bringing both stories together so that while taking place at different times, they blend together seamlessly. I was never jarred by the switch from Matthew’s perspective to the journals. And while the book is entertaining in its own right, it also has historical elements from the European front of World War II. The perilous realities for Jews is presented in Uncle Leonard and Isaac, and my heart broke reading the journals. I longed for a happy ending, but knowing what I do of the war and the Holocaust, I didn’t hold much hope. I won’t reveal what happens, but even if Natale had written the journals on their own, I would have enjoyed them.
Though I enjoyed Matthew’s story and following the journals, seeing the romance between Olga and Nina blossom also brought joy. Here is a young lesbian couple trying to find a way to be together despite the engagement of one and a society that all but condemns them. And while I enjoyed Olga at first, it was Nina, in the end, who became my favorite character of the duo. She might seem quiet and shy, but she has a lot of hidden strength!
If you’re a fan of history, I highly recommend this book. It can be heartbreaking at times, but it looks at several periods in history where the LGBT and Jewish communities were persecuted. If you’re looking for something steamy, set this one aside for a later time, as there are passionate moments, but they are far from graphic. That shouldn’t dissuade you from reading this book, though, because what it lacks it heat, it makes up in heart.
You can buy Café Eisenhower here: