A secret from the past can change your life for ever. The Moment is a heart-breaking love story set in Cold War Berlin by the author of The Pursuit of Happiness and Five Days.
Thomas Nesbitt is a divorced American writer living a very private life in Maine. Until, one wintry morning, his solitude is disrupted by the arrival of a package postmarked Berlin.
But what is more unsettling is the name accompanying the return address on the package: Petra Dussmann. For she is the woman with whom Thomas had an intense love affair twenty-five years before in a divided Berlin, where people lived fearfully under the shadows of the Cold War.
And so Thomas is forced to grapple with a past he has always kept hidden. For Petra Dussman was a refugee from the police state of East Germany. And her tragic secrets were to re-write both their destinies.
I found myself strangely captivated by this tale of lost love in a divided Germany. I worked my way through all of Douglas Kennedy’s books around five years ago after enjoying A Special Relationship and while they’re all great reads something about this one stayed with me. Perhaps because I’ve lost someone I loved. Or because I once had a short, intense love affair that, given different timing, could have blossomed into a something beautiful. We have probably all had similar experiences, where the timing was just wrong. However, when added to this restrictive Cold War environment, love becomes so precious by contrast. Like a flower blooming through the cracks in a pavement.
This story unfolds like a set of Russian dolls. When the package arrives with Petra’s return address it sends Thomas back to the account he wrote of his time in West Germany. We read his narrative and are drawn into this impossible love story that left him with so many unanswered questions. When he opens the package, he finds Petra’s account of that time and we are lost in the same story, but from a different viewpoint. What he discovers is shocking and illuminating, but will it answer his questions? More importantly, will it confirm and deepen the love he felt for Petra and how will that change his life moving forward? There are so many things I love about Kennedy’s writing and this book showcases them beautifully. The historical research and detail feel genuine. He takes a period of history beyond the facts, to show how this world affected the people who lived through it’s events – not just physically, but emotionally too. The stark, grey, concrete world of East Germany and it’s citizen’s fear of the Stasi, become real through Petra’s story. There is so little to look forward to and an absence of joy here. I remembered back to my younger years and the pictures on the news as the Berlin Wall came down. Now I understood their euphoria and their need to physically take hold of this symbol of oppression and dash it to the ground with their bare hands.
Kennedy also has the uncanny ability to write convincingly from the viewpoint of both men and women. This was a skill first seen in his novel A Special Relationship, where he wrote from the viewpoint of a new mother whose husband thought she was suffering from post-natal depression. Here again he writes from the viewpoint of a woman and mother, torn between romantic and motherly love. Even, as we wonder which of these loves will win out in the end, we realise neither choice can ever truly fulfil Petra without the other. There are no winners, whichever choice is made. The only outcome here is betrayal.
As we come back to Thomas’s current circumstances, further enlightened by the stories we have experienced, we see how the psychological damage of childhood and our youth can colour the rest of our lives. It seems we spend the latter part of our adult lives trying to untangle, then heal these wounds, as we recognise how much damage these traumatic experiences have had on our choices – in Thomas’s case, during his failed relationship with his wife. I also think Kennedy is telling us something very important about stories. Thomas’s story would have made a novel all on it’s own, but by adding Petra’s version we start to see something of the ‘whole’ story. Our version of events, even factual ones, are just that; our version. It’s just one piece of a patchwork quilt of perspectives. Even our own version can change as we get older, gain experience and develop new ways of understanding. This novel is unusual, because it’s a love story for people who don’t read love stories. Or a novel about Cold War Germany, for people who understand the importance of love. For me, it’s that unusual, niche, mixture that made it stay with me.
Meet The Author
Douglas Kennedy is the author of ten novels, including the international bestseller Leaving the World and The Moment. His work has been translated into 22 languages, and in 2007 he received the French decoration of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Born in Manhattan, he now has homes in London, Paris, and Maine, and has two children.