Life imitates a Tom Cruise movie dubbed in German in a city where “Dixie” is a popular ring tone
This Must Be the Place. By Anna Winger. Penguin/Riverhead, 303 pp., $24.95.
By Janice Harayda
What does it mean to spend much of your life speaking in someone else’s voice? And if you’ve done it, can you get yourself back again?
These questions lie at the heart of This Must Be the Place, Anna Winger’s engaging first novel about an unlikely friendship between an American wife and an unmarried man who lives in her apartment building in the Charlottenburg section of Berlin. Hope has followed her Jewish husband, Dave, to Germany, partly to escape tragedies in New York, including the attacks of Sept. 11. Walter earns an enviable living as the German voice of Tom Cruise, spending his days dubbing Vanilla Sky, a job that helps to mask his loneliness. Both of their lives change after a sidewalk argument brings them together and, over the next few months, they grow closer in ways that at once expose and ease their different forms of psychic displacement.
At times Winger overreaches as she describes the quirky bond between Hope and Walter. She tries to link circumstances too big and different to fit together neatly: losing a child, surviving Sept. 11, leaving America, being Jewish in Germany, and living in a formerly divided city. This effort leads to plot contrivances and talky explanations of motives. You wonder if Winger once wrote self-help articles for women’s magazines when you come across lines like: “She had resisted further argument with Dave because his anger about it was the only suggestion that somewhere inside his rational exterior he was suffering too and she wanted to believe that.” Some scenes seem to mainly exist as vehicles for her views on questions of national identity and other subjects.
But Winger’s observations on Germany are generally interesting and often amusing. Hope arrives in Berlin when “Dixie” is a popular ring tone on German cell phones. Walter comes from an Alpine town “where people in crisis were often comforted by visions of the Virgin Mary in breakfast cereal or dishwater bubbles.” Winger explains why German men urinate sitting down and what can happen if you ride the Berlin subways without a ticket even though there are no turnstiles.
In some ways, This Must Be the Place resembles Diane Johnson’s novel about Paris, Le Divorce. Like Johnson, Winger shows an unsentimental affection for her adopted city. And if Berlin isn’t Paris, Winger makes clear that it has its own charms.
“In New York, as soon as one building came down, another went up so quickly as to obliterate the memory of what had been there before,” Winger writes. “In other European cities, the past was glorified, the architecture spruced up for tourists to the point of caricature. But here, nobody seemed to be in any hurry one way or the other. Buildings had been bombed and the city had been ripped apart, but years later holes remained all over the place without explanation or apparent concern. The city moved forward with a lack of vanity that she found relaxing.”
Best line: “In almost every Tom Cruise movie he could think of, Rain Man, Jerry Maguire, Days of Thunder, The Firm, you name it, somewhere in the second act his character danced and sang along to a pop song on the radio to illustrate a sudden flash of optimism.”
Worst line: “In September, when she came out of her downtown building to see people covered in white powder running for their lives, she had not been entirely surprised to find the outside world finally reflecting her inner chaos.” Winger doesn’t begin to show why Hope might have had this extraordinarily nonchalant response to Sept. 11. It makes her heroine look self-absorbed in a way that the rest of the book doesn’t.
Editor: Megan Lynch
Published: August 2008 annawinger.com/book.html
About the author: Winger lives in Berlin. She created The Berlin Stories, a radio series for NPR Worldwide.
You can read more about This Must Be the Place in the post “Germany Loves the Famous Has-Beens” that appeared on this site on Dec. 2 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/12/02/.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.