Full Disclosure: I received early access to this book in exchange for writing an impartial review. Awarded 4 stars on Goodreads.
This is a skillfully written book that takes the reader deep into a world of unimaginable wealth and privilege — that of a family of wealthy Jewish bankers, living in Europe in the years leading to World War I. Partly based on the author’s own family history and influenced by the famous Rothschilds, HOUSE OF GOLD tells the story of the Goldbaum family whose various branches control some of the most powerful banks in the capital cities of Europe. They provide the money that not only fuels the expansion of industry, but also props up the very governments about to wage war. Yet, despite their economic importance,members of the family can never achieve complete acceptance in European upper-crust society where anti-semitism is rampant.
The lives led by the Goldbaums, though beyond extravagant, are also full of petty internal competition — particularly between richer branches and those considered less so. Marriages are arranged, with spouses chosen from among the available cousins, in order to preserve family wealth. The very idea of romance with an outsider cannot even be entertained.
Within the family, there is a sharp divide of responsibilities along gender lines. First-born sons MUST grow up to run the banks, regardless of interest or ability. And daughters are required to mold themselves into narrow lives defined by dutiful childbearing, expensive clothing, endless hosting responsibilities, and maybe, a few good works.
The marriage that is central to the novel is that of Albert, of the wealthier London Goldbaums, and Greta, of the less wealthy Vienna Goldbaums. Without giving anything way, let’s just say theirs is not a traditional romance. They must navigate challenges around marital consummation, family expectations, birth control, fear of childbirth, and long separations. There are also interesting secondary plot lines involving Greta’s brother Otto and their cousin Henri, of the Paris Goldbaums.
But this is much more than simply a novel about a rich family with economic power — because the story takes place before and during World War I. When Germany, France, England, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire go to war in 1914 — members of the Goldbaums find themselves forced into different camps, weighing loyalty to homeland against loyalty to family interests.
Even more interesting to me was the chance to explore the war from the perspective of its economics. While we often hear stories of trench warfare and massive casualties, here is a look behind the scenes where the countries waging war are frantically maneuvering to secure loans to finance their armies and manipulating political situations to influence whether the United States enters the war. And smack in the middle of it all are the Goldbaums and their powerful banks.
For those interested in World War I, this novel presents quite an interesting, important, and fresh perspective. And the book paints a fascinating and lush picture of the final days of an indulgent lifestyle, propped up by legions of servants, that essentially disappeared after the war. (Think Downton Abbey.)
I read the book quickly, found it suspenseful and compelling, and felt that I learned a lot. I do have two criticisms. One has to do with the level of detail included about horticulture, which for me, became tedious. The second has to do with the character of Karl, who appears randomly and irregularly throughout the first part of the book, for no apparent reason I could discern, except perhaps as a reminder that not all Jews at this time lived well. While Karl eventually becomes part of a significant storyline, his integration into the novel felt clunky.
Neither criticism, however, is serious enough to keep me from recommending this book, especially to lovers of historical fiction. And I now plan to look for other books by Natasha Solomon.