Book Review: The Moment – by Douglas Kennedy

The MomentIn every life there are pivotal moments when an event occurs, often purely by chance, that changes everything that follows. Other times we make a decision, either after much thinking, or in the spur of the moment, that ended up changing our lives. We all have those moments, but some of them are so momentous (pun intended) that they affect everything that happens after.

The novel The Moment is about such a pivotal event.

It’s above all a love story, a bit reminiscent of Bridges of Madison County.

Thomas Nesbitt is an American travel writer in his mid-twenties with one minor book about Egypt published when he decides to write a book about Berlin. He gets a small advance that is just enough to finance traveling to Berlin in 1984, find a cheap place to live for a few months while taking in the city and writing down his notes. When he meets a young woman named Petra Dussmann, a translator who works for the same American propaganda radio station as he, it is love at first sight for both of them. But a love with complications it is.

Petra comes with an unusual background. She grew up in East Germany and was expelled to the West. The German Democratic Republic, “East Germany,” was a police state that had to lock its own citizens up inside the country so they didn’t leave. That’s what the Berlin Wall was all about. Guards were instructed to shoot to kill anyone trying to escape by crossing over the wall. Within its borders, a network of informers tattled on people. Children were instigated to report their parents for transgressions against the state. Simple things like listening to a western radio station or watching western television was enough of a thought crime to get people arrested, put into labor camps, or even killed in severe cases.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, on the western side of the wall, life in modern Germany was ticking away. People worked, smoked, did drugs, wrote novels, painted pictures, got rich, lingered in cafes, drank Hefeweizen, smoked, and smoked some more.

Petra and Thomas seemed made for each other and were planning a life together, when international intrigue suddenly complicated things for them until they escalated and the moment came, and went, and nothing was the same again.

The Moment is a gripping novel, expertly told, about two lives, one love, and immense pain and suffering, endless longing, and unfulfilled yearnings. It provides a vivid picture of life in East and West Germany around 1984 with powerful insight into the workings of the East German state and its sorry excuse for a system of government that ruined the lives and possibilities of two full generations of Germans, not to speak of the thousands killed and millions hurt, physically and emotionally.

Captivating and easy to read, the book is at times a bit verbose with side plots so elaborately woven that they almost distract. But in the end, the pictures are vivid and clear, and we all find a little bit of The Moment in our own lives when we wonder – what might have been.

Rating: ***

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