“Perhaps putting The Woman Who Heard Color in the form of a romance novel will draw a larger audience. So, mediocre as this novel is, let us welcome it nonetheless into the canon of Holocaust literature.”
The Holocaust was so horrific and overwhelming that fiction writers may never run out of fresh ways to approach it. The Woman Who Heard Color chooses the little-told angle of the Nazis’ theft of what they labeled “degenerate”—and priceless—artwork. It also takes the rather unusual tactic of turning this horror into a romance novel.
Of course, the Holocaust deserves more serious treatment and better writing. But for what it is, The Woman Who Heard Color is certainly adequate.
It has a plot that keeps the reader’s interest, with some unusual twists to go along with its unusual premise. The main story concerns Hanna Schmid Fleischmann, a Christian-German farm girl-turned-art expert with “fiery red” hair who manages to be in exactly the right places to watch history unfold from 1900 through the 1930s while breathlessly falling in love, first with her wealthy Jewish employer, then on a cruise ship with a “tall and slender” stranger who has “a highlighted cheekbone, a slight cleft in the chin.”
As is typical of the genre, this novel is largely propelled by coincidence, cliché, and pedestrian writing. Conveniently, when 16-year-old Hanna runs away from her cruel stepmother on the family farm, there’s a job opening as a maid at the home of the Jewish art gallery owner where her sister works. Why, even the ex-maid’s uniform is, conveniently, just the right size! Conveniently, the gallery owner, Moses Fleischmann, strolls into a room just as Hanna is staring at his brand-new Cezanne, and conveniently, his wife’s personal maid dies so that Hanna can be reassigned to replace her.
Hanna is so talented and pretty that she of course becomes the ailing wife’s special favorite, thus conveniently gaining a chance to become better acquainted with both art and husband, until the wife conveniently dies and Hanna can marry the husband. And that’s only the first 84 pages.
Among other developments in the ensuing 300 pages, Hanna apparently singlehandedly causes the rise of Nazism when, as a manager of her husband’s gallery in pre-World War One Munich, she rejects the drawings proffered by a talentless Austrian artist with “steel-blue” eyes and the signature A. Hitler.
But luckily, this same Hanna gets hired as Hitler’s personal Curator of Degenerate Art—despite her obviously Jewish marital last name—thus singlehandedly savings dozens of works by artists like Gauguin, Chagall, and Van Gogh. This job also allows her to conveniently reunite with the handsome man from her shipboard romance 13 years earlier, who happens to work for a Swiss art gallery. And don’t worry: Inwardly, Hanna feels really, really bad about helping the Nazis.
This central story is wrapped inside the framing device of an investigation by a modern-day, Jewish-American art detective, Lauren O’Farrell, who confronts Hanna’s now-elderly daughter, Isabella, to uncover what the detective assumes was Hanna’s collaboration with the Nazis.
The book’s title comes from Hanna’s trait of hearing sounds as colors—a rare but not unique condition known as synesthesia, in which people associate one sense with perceptions related to another. Moses Fleischmann’s voice, for instance, is “the color of the deep violet-blue of the Alpine gentian” the first few times Hanna hears it.
Admittedly, no one should expect great prose in romance novels; clichés and overblown writing are the norm. But author Kelly Jones hits a particularly low note by making even the vicious violence of Kristallnacht sound boring: “Their car rolled by a scene of building after building, smoldering, vandalized, windows shattered.”
Still, The Woman Who Heard Color has its strengths, including snatches of conversation among various Germans during the early years of Hitler’s dictatorship. Ordinary citizens could not have foreseen what their country would become, and it’s thus painfully fascinating to see their naivete. “Hitler did not invent anti-Semitism,” Moses Fleischmann says dismissively in 1935. True—and sad – enough.
None of those insights is new, and this book may not tell us anything we didn’t already know. It may not tell even that very well. But some stories need to be retold, over and over. Perhaps putting The Woman Who Heard Color in the form of a romance novel will draw a larger audience. So, mediocre as this novel is, let us welcome it into the canon of Holocaust literature.