BERLIN, 1931: Sisters raised in a Catholic orphanage, Berni and Grete Metzger are each other's whole world. That is, until life propels them to opposite sides of seedy, splendid, and violent Weimar Berlin. Berni becomes a cigarette girl, a denizen of the cabaret scene alongside her transgender best friend, who is considering a risky gender reassignment surgery. Meanwhile Grete is hired as a maid to a Nazi family, and begins to form a complicated bond with their son. As Germany barrels toward the Third Reich and ruin, one of the sisters must make a devastating choice.
SOUTH CAROLINA, 1970: With the recent death of her father, Janeen Moore yearns to know more about her family history, especially the closely guarded story of her mother's youth in Germany. One day she intercepts a letter intended for her mother: a confession written by a German woman, a plea for forgiveness. What role does Janeen's mother play in this story, and why does she seem so distressed by recent news that a former SS officer has resurfaced in America?
Fräulein M. abounds with hidden identities and family secrets. With its multilayered exploration of family ties, hard choices, and the weight of history in our lives, the novel shines light on a brilliant new voice.
Woods traces the fates of two very different sisters from Weimar Germany to 1970s America in a debut novel that explores identity, gender, and (at times misguided) loyalty. Raised in an orphanage, Berni and Grete Metzger are as close as two sisters can be; fearless Berni is fiercely protective of her younger sister, who has hearing loss. When an opportunity arises, Berni seizes it, ultimately driving a wedge between the two sisters and splintering their relationship for decades. Berni soon befriends a diverse group, including her transgender roommate and her Jewish landlady, both of whose situations grow increasingly desperate as the Nazis rise to power. Meanwhile, Grete, coping with feelings of abandonment and failing to understand Berni s new lifestyle, turns her devotion elsewhere. Some of the novel s numerous plot twists are effective, but some techniques (such as an exposition-laden letter from Grete and an abrupt shift to an American setting) feel manufactured or melodramatic. Nevertheless, Woods skillfully captures the disorienting mixture of heady freedom and mounting fear characterizing 1930s Berlin, and the political and gender issues she raises add contemporary relevancy.