Book Club Notes: The Beast’s Garden

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I have a book club! Huzzah! A real life, in-the-flesh club that meets, drinks tea and discusses a set book of the month. And it is good, so, so good. Our first book was The Rosie Project which was a delight to read and discuss. Book two is The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth. Talk about a change of pace. Set in pre-war and wartime Germany, this retelling of Beauty and The Beast is beautiful and heartbreaking. It is unlike any other BatB retelling I’ve read before. I now know that is because the YA re-tellings I have read (think Withering Rose and A Court of Thorns and Roses) have been interpretations of the more modern version. There is however, an intriguing history behind the tale. A history with origins that could possibly date back at around 4000 years.

The Beast’s Garden is inspired by the Brothers Grimm’s version of the tale: The Singing, Springing Lark.

Kate herself is extraordinary. If you get a chance to hear her speak, do so. Her presentations are filled with inspiring and remarkable tales. She is completing a doctorate in fairy tale re-tellings (how cool is that!!!) and is a veteran author. Her website shares some of the vast amount of research she does for her works. In particular, her pages on the history & meaning of ‘Beauty & the Beast’ provide fascinating material for discussion.

Below are my questions for our book club. I’ve also included a detailed synopsis so members can have a quick refresher of the plot before we meet and discuss all things Singing, Springing Lark. If you haven’t read the book – STOP HERE. Seriously, don’t spoil this incredible novel by reading the synopsis first.

WARNING: spoilers ahead.

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Book club questions:

  1. After playing banned jazz and catching (as yet unknown ) Leo’s attention, Rupert declares, “I’m sick of being careful…” What does this use of foreshadowing tell us about the character of Rupert and the story to unfold?
  2. Even after Kristallnacht, Rupert believes commonsense and human decency will prevail. Do you think many people in Germany at this time held this belief?
  3. Chapter Four ends with the young musicians fleeing the SA. What do you think motivated Ava to tie Rupert’s scarf around the statue of the Führer? Do you think she understood the consequences of being caught?
  4. In Chapter Five, Ava recalls her father’s original view on Hitler’s popularity – “‘No one can take Herr Hitler seriously,’ he had said. ‘He’ll be laughed out of the Reichstag.’” (Forsyth, 2015, p.40) Is this misconception representative of other periods throughout history?
  5. Otto states that, “Books are dangerous! Nothing opens up the mind and the hearts like books do, and so they have the power to change the whole world.” (Forsyth, 2015, p.42) Do you agree with his statement?
  6. Ava convinces her father to warn people in Poland about a planned German attack. Was this brave or naive?
  7. In July 1939, Ava wishes she had never met Rupert. Does this signify the shift in her affections towards Leo and away from Rupert or does this symbolise something else?
  8. In Chapter 29 Monika and Ava have lunch at a fancy cafe for Monika’s birthday. Monika’s behaviour towards her sister is conflicted; she throws sharp barbs at her sister one moment and then a confession about Rupert the next. She even issues a stern warning his Rupert’s family. What drives Monika’s behaviour towards Ava and the Feidlers?
  9. Why might Monika have appeared so put-together and haughty, yet stressed and nervous at the same time?
  10. Could Ava have done more to save Libertas?
  11. How important to Rupert’s survival was the gift from Rudi?
  12. To what extend does Ava’s character change throughout the course of the novel?

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The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth Synopsis:

Part I November 1938 – March 1939

It is Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – and the apartment of Ava Falkenhorst’s close family friends, the Feidlers, is being ransacked. Ava wants to help but is stopped by a stranger. A Nazi. At this dark and malevolent time, Ava and the stranger share an intimate moment of honesty. The soldier issues a dire warning – “This is only the beginning,” before disappearing into the night.

The Feidlers move into the Falkenhorst’s house, a modest space for six people now cramped with ten. It is not long before tensions rise between Monika, who works for the SS, and the two Feidler children: Ava’s best friend and fellow musician, Rupert, and his older sister, Jutta. While singing with Rupert to her niece, Ava notices the Nazi soldier watching her through the window. A moment later he knocks on the front door and asks Ava to accompany him for a walk. She refuses.

Ava and Rupert seek release from the daily tension at the Hot Club – an underground jazz club – but flee when it is raided by police. Ava commits her first act of anti-Nazi vandalism by tying a scarf over the mouth of a statue of Hitler.

She is offered a paid singing job at which Himmler is in attendance. Ava purposely forgets to sing the altered lyrics to Silent Night as instructed. She captures the attention of Reinhard Heydrich, Head of the Gestapo. Also present at the event is the soldier, Leo Van Lowenstien. Ava discovers it was Leo who recommended her for the performance.
Leo and Ava meet in the teirgarten. It is here Leo confesses his duty is in conflict with his conscience. Ava’s hardened heart wavers. They share a kiss. The next day a rose is sent to Ava -a rarity in wintry Berlin. Ava rejects his further advances, convinced he is part of the Nazi machine.

Germany invades Prague. The Feidlers have missed their chance to flee Germany. Ava accepts a scholarship for which Rupert’s resentment grows. Leo visits and disproves of Rupert living with Ava, especially with his casual nature. Rupert insists Ava not see Leo. Ava realises her connection to the fairytale, ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ and that as in the tale, she too must see past the beast’s skin. She goes to Leo and their fledgling relationship grows. Leo confesses his desires for her but Ava cannot trust the Nazi in him. His jealousy emerges and he believes her resistance is because she is in a relationship with Rupert. That night, Rupert is arrested by the Gestapo for ‘subversive activities’.

The Feidlers move out. Ava tortures herself trying to determine who denounced Rupert. Was it Leo? She goes to Gestapo headquarters to find more information. She and the Feilders are told he has been sent to a labour camp. Ava sends a note to Leo telling him she never wants to see him again.

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Part II July – December 1939

Ava journeys to Bayreuth to perform at a music festival celebrating Wagner’s work. She is struggling with the knowledge of Rupert’s fate – a coded letter has revealed to his family he is alive but in a hellish prison camp. Ava wishes she had never met him.

Rupert is working in the Buchenwald’s camp. Starved and tormented, it is an effort to remain alive. He meets Rudi who gives him something that changes his life – a pen and scrap of paper.

Ava has her first glimpse of Hitler who is accompanied by two English women. She admires their frankness and wishes she herself could be unafraid. During her month at Bayreuth, Ava overhears Hitler say he wants a war and will take Poland in just weeks. She and her father, Otto, make a plan to write some warnings. Weeks later, Otto is arrested. Ava turns to Leo for help. Monika is determined to let her Oberführer at work know she was not involved in her father’s actions. Leo organises for Otto’s escape to Switzerland with Ava’s sister, Bertha (as his nurse) and Bertha’s daughter, Angelika. Ava and Leo share a passionate night. He convinces her to wed him. Ava says, “All right”. The next day they are wed, witnessed by Monika. Ava is introduced to Gilda, Leo’s prized possession, and they drive to his parent’s residence, the schloss, for their honeymoon. She still believes Leo is a dangerous Nazi and cannot trust him completely. At the schloss, Ava meets Leo’s mother, Isabelle, and his grandfather and learns about the passing of Leo’s brother.

In the camp, Rupert meets the Commandant’s young son and the brief encounter revives something lost – hope.

At the schloss, Ava meets Leo’s ex, Gertrud. Gertrud does not like Ava or that she has married Leo.

Germany invades Poland. Leo’s mother gives Ava the Lowenstein family pearls before Ava and Leo return to Berlin. While Leo is away at war, Ava visits with the Feidlers and agrees to spy on Leo. Later, Ava brings suitcases of donations to Jutta at the Jewish community office. Here she meets Libertas and the pair quickly become fast friends.
Leo returns from war and confesses the horrors he has seen as Warsaw was crushed by the German army. Despite this, Ava feels as though in many ways Leo is still a stranger to her.

In Buchenwald, Rupert continues to survive.

In the cold of winter, Ava spys on Leo as he meets with the admiral. Ava and Jutta continue their nighttime acts of vandalism.

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Part III June 1940 – December 1942

Devastated at the news her birthplace of Paris has fallen to the Nazis, Libertas commiserates with Ava and others unsympathetic to the Nazi cause. Ava feels she may have found  a form of resistance to join against the Third Reich.

At Buchenwald, Rudi is dead and a large chimney has been built.

After an air raid, Ava seizes the opportunity to have a secret key to Leo’s office made. She turns 21 and on that day discovers Leo did not denounce Rupert. Ava admits she loves him. Leo admits he loves her.

Rupert receives a trumpet from Jutta.

With her new camera, Ava takes photos of top secret documents found in Leo’s office. She spies on him during a daytime meeting with the admiral. At home, she catches him in a lie to her about his work.

Ava, Libertas and others continue their subversive activities with the help of a radio and a Russian spy.

Monika and Ava have lunch together for Monika’s birthday. Monika declares she did not denounce Rupert and issues a warning for the Feidlers: “get out now”.

Mass deportations of Jewish people from the city begins. Ava reads a report in Leo’s office of a massacre and questions his role in it.

On Christmas Eve, Leo and Ava travel to Admiral Canaris’s house. There, Ava eavesdrops as Leo meets privately with others about the war. Though confused about what she hears, Ava knows Heydrich’s surprise arrival could be disastrous for those in the meeting. Despite the danger she draws to herself, she distracts him. Back in Berlin with Leo away, Heydrich sends for Ava. He threatens her with her heritage and makes forceful advances. Unable to hide her injuries, she confess his actions to Leo. Ava now needs answers regarding her mother’s bloodlines and seeks out information first from the Feidlers and then from a gypsy caravan.

Jutta, Heinz and others plan an explosion at an exhibition to be attended by Hitler. It fails and Jutta seeks refuge in Ava’s basement. They do not tell Leo. Both Leo and Ava are pleased to hear of Heydrich’s assassination by a Czech resistance fighter but they know Hitler will want repercussions. Many of Jutta’s friends are executed. Mass executions and deportations occur in Czechoslovakia and Berlin in reprisal for Heydrich and for the Lustgarten bombing. Ava puts herself in more danger by giving her papers to Jutta.

Ava receives news her sister Bertha will be married in Switzerland and she and Leo plan Ava’s attendance. Ava is still keeping the secret of Jutta’s accommodation and though Leo knows she is lying to him, he does not push the issue. Ava assumes the role of a travelling spy in order to attend the wedding. Though the Gestapo offices are suspicious, she is able to leave and return safely. Leo tells Ava he knows about Jutta and that she must leave. They agree to finally trust each other and keep no more secrets.

Libertas and friends hiding the Russian spies are in trouble. Ava attempts to warn her but she is too late and can only watch as her friend is arrested.

The Buchenwald camp  is no longer full of Jewish people.

Liberatas and company are executed. Ava struggles with the loss of her friend and the world in which she must now live. She and Jutta become each other’s stalwart.

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Part IV January 1943 – July 1944

Ava and Leo discuss good and evil and what this means for Leo: he must kill Hitler. Onkel Franz is arrested despite his exemption due to his service in WWI. Tante Thea and other wives protest at the holding house and though repeatedly threatened with shooting, the ladies remain defiant and the Nazi troops eventually release Onkel Franz and the others in this centre. They had been scheduled for deportation to Auschwitz.

Rupert and Lucien and other prisoners are working on a delicate weapon in the camp factory. They decide to steal parts and make their own radio.

Many attempts by Leo and his co-conspirators to kill Hitler fail. Two men from the latest plot are arrested. In November, another plan fails. Berlin is bombed. The tiergarten is hit. The city is in chaos. Tante Thea and Onkel Franz are killed. Monika weds her SS officer fiance in a lavish ceremony on mid summer’s eve at Goebbel’s house. Himmler and family are there as is Gertrud and her fiance, Max Kranz, a high-ranking SS official. Kranz takes an interest in Ava. Monika’s new husband boasts of the extermination of
Thousand Jewish people a day. Ava is sickened. Kranz makes an aggressive pass at Ava. He informs her Gertrud had denounced Ava’s possible gypsy heritage to Heydrich.

Lucien and Rupert and others listen to their radio. Hope grows as does Lucien and Rupert’s love.

Another assassination of the Fuhrer fails. This time, the SS arrive for the Abwher. Leo escapes but is arrested at home. Ava flees.

For six months Ava has lived on the streets with Jutta. When a woman is killed in front of her, Ava seizes the opportunity to steel her clothes, identity and apartment. She seeks out Monika who informs Ava of Leo’s location: Flossenbürg. Determined to rescue Leo and Rupert, Ava and Jutta take Gilda on a slow and dangerous journey.

Buchenwald prisoners are all to be executed. Leo and Rupert attempt to save a group of children. Rupert and Lucien are captured; Lucien makes a sacrifice to stay with Rupert.

Ava leaves Jutta near Buchenwald to look for Rupert amongst the prisoners being relocated and she continues on to Flossenbürg. There she manoeuvres herself into performing for the officers. Gertrud and Max Krantz are in attendance. Ava uses Gertrud’s jealousy to formulate a plan of rescue.

Having found the traitor prisoners, Ava learns they are to be hanged in the morning. Kranz discovers Ava’s deception.

Jutta defeats two SS officers and takes their motorcycle.

Kranz leads Ava to his room, his depraved intentions clear. They struggle and Ava kills him with a champagne glass. Armed and dressed as a guard, Ava captures Gertrud and uses her for information. She rescues Leo and escapes in Kranz’s car.

In post-war Germany, they are each on thier own path to recovery. Leo, having survived eight months of torture, uses his work in the schloss garden to attempt to rebuild himself.
Ava is pregnant and they are overjoyed.

Jutta arrives with Rupert and Lucien and Leo’s mother, Isabelle, nurses them back to life. Later, Monika arrives, dumps a baby born ten months after her husband’s execution, and leaves.

Ava and Leo’s daughter, Libertas, is raised with Rainer as siblings.  Leo testifies at the Nuremberg Trials and at those in Dachau. Eventually his nightmares cease. Together, he and Ava dream of one day opening the schloss to people in need.

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