The epigraph for Hester Among the Ruins is from James Baldwin: "People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them." This is particularly true for Hester Rosenfeld, an American historian who has made her mark writing popular biographies of everyday Americans born during the colonial era. As she explains it, "history is not with the powers that be, but with the common man."
But Hester has grown weary of writing about American colonists. She's restless; she needs a change of pace. While casting about for a new subject, thinking maybe she'll focus on an aspect of medieval Europen history, Hester is put in touch with a renowned German historian named Heinrich Falk. Within a day or two of meeting Falk at a conference in Munich, Hester has decided a few things: she will pick up and move to Munich; Falk, himself, will become her subject; and she will become his mistress.
Hester tries to convince us that HF is a legitimate subject of her work rather than the work being an excuse to peer, with his full consent, into all the corner of his past, and integrate herself fully into his present: "he was a war baby raised in the quagmire of defeat by a generation of murderers at worst or cowards as best. A German after the fact, he is the prototype of the everyman of a nation occupied, divided, and then put together again....These years of his could well make for a provocative document...."
Hester believes that she and HF are clearly destined for each other, but aside from the obvious complications of negotiating an affair with a married man in a foreign city, there is a dilemma faced by these two characters. They consider themselves enlightened enough and, strangely, ahistorical enough to bypass the complications that modern history has inescapably placed between them. Hester is a secular American Jew whose parents immigrated to the U.S. just before the war, and HF is a German born at the tail end of a war caused in large part by his culture's ingrained antisemitism and cultural hubris. His mores were formed by that Germany, though he believes that he is free of the prejudices of his country's past. Hester's point of view is that her Jewishness is a facet of her identity that doesn't have a lot to do with her everyday life.
Heavy themes aside, this novel is laced through with wicked humor. Hester is one of the most funny and ballsy characters I've come across in a long time. The interchanges between Hester and HF are often hilarious--he's uncommonly vain and, ever the professional, she takes notes during even the most romantic of evenings, titling one section of her notebook "Nutball Things He Says." Throughout the novel Kirshenbaum inserts italicized selections from Hester's notebook that offer a different perspective on HF and, often, on her own motivations.
I love this novel for its blend of depth and lightness; its serious, yet funny look at how we live within our own and our culture's history; the big questions it seeks to answer. I left the novel wondering how Kirshenbaum was able to blend all these elements together in such an entertaining way and thankful that she did so with such heart and artistry.