The author’s motive for writing a novel—if I am even aware of it—usually matters less than being educated and entertained. But that can’t be said about The Puzzle King. In her third novel, Betsy Carter fictionalizes the lives of her great uncle and aunt, now gone, in order to understand how they came to America and eventually rescue hundreds of people—including her parents—from Hitler’s Germany, making the book interesting for those facts alone.
Simon and Flora Phelps are both immigrants: Simon’s mother sent him alone at age nine to New York from Lithuania in order to save him from a life in the army; Flora came as a teenager to join one of her sisters. Flora keeps in touch with her mother and remaining sister and her family who are still in Germany, but Simon, despite his strenuous efforts, has lost track of his. He’s a talented artist who has a successful career, crowned “the Puzzle King” by Time magazine for the jigsaw puzzles he creates as promotional items for various products. But he is increasingly aware of his outsider status as a Jew. He and Flora have a solid marriage, and, while they are never able to have children, they are close to Flora’s niece, Edith, who comes from Germany to visit for a glorious summer in 1923.
Seema, Flora’s older sister, is not interested in marriage or children, or any religion. She is an intriguing character, drawn to crosses, which she begins to collect in secret. “[I]t was the way her fingers wrapped around the cross and the perfect symmetry of its design that reassured Seema that some things in life were permanent.”
As the situation in Germany worsens for Jews, only Simon and Flora see the growing dangers for their loved ones—including Seema, who has moved back to Germany. What they do to help their loved ones forms the heart of the story.
The novel’s episodic structure doesn’t always do full justice to its wide range of characters, and the ending seems too sudden and lacks the emotional weight hinted at by the prologue. Still, The Puzzle King is a vibrant portrait of a time and some unexpectedly courageous people.