There's a weird schizophrenia about this book, which sometimes feels like an eerie Gothic romance and at other times feels like the Diary of Anne Frank. The title suggests that the book will tell the horrifying story of the children of Pithiviers, those French Jewish children wrested from their families and warehoused in Pithiviers before being turned over to the Germans for extermination. The primary focus of the book, and the vehicle through which the Pithiviers story is revealed, however, is the character of Deidre, a pliable, uncritical, 17-year-old Sorbonne student from the Transvaal, sent to Pithiviers in the French countryside for the summer of 1959, following her "disgrace" in Paris and her subsequent abortion.
Deidre quickly discovers that life at the dilapidated mill with Madame and the Baron is more a form of bizarre sexual education than the elevating cultural experience she had expected. Madame massages, bathes, and caresses her, has her walk around nude, and even dresses her, at one point. The sixtyish Baron fondles her under the table at her 18th birthday party, excites her, and later has an affair with her. Deidre retreats, at times, to the attic, where she has discovered a series of notes written in the margins of some old magazines by two young girls. They are obviously children who have hidden there during the war, bright girls of twelve and fifteen who miss their Maman desperately, but who continue to believe that "Nothing seriously wrong can happen in France: is it not the country of the Rights of Man?"
Although one of the critics felt that intertwining these stories increased their emotional impact, I strongly disagree. The story of the children of Pithiviers is so horrific and their betrayal by French collaborators so vile that no other story could possibly make the reality more powerful. The author, however, creates obvious parallels between Deidre's "imprisonment" by Madame and the Baron, and the earlier, similar imprisonment of Lea and Anna, the two Jewish girls. Since the scale of their problems is so dissimilar, however, the comparisons between them made me cringe--the parallels diminished the story of the children of Pithiviers by making that story part of a less monstrous context. No matter how remote and isolated Deirdre may have felt from her family, or how helpless she may have been to resist the corruption to which she was exposed by her hosts, she nevertheless had choices absolutely unavailable to Lea and Anna in Pithiviers during World War II.
Because the narrative here speeds along and has many surprises and psychological insights, other readers may become caught up in the problems of Deidre with their considerable suspense. I found her unrealistic and much too pliable, however, even for 1959, and I was offended by the obvious attempts to make me view the Pithiviers horrors in connection with her lesser problems.