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Review: House of Gold, by Natasha Solomons
Putnam, 2018. 433 pp. $26

Greta Goldbaum, a spirited young woman in 1911 Vienna who thinks nothing of going barefoot when her shoes pinch or contesting conventions that make no sense to her, dreams of choosing her own life. Alas, Vienna’s no place for free spirits, nor is the Goldbaum family the type to tolerate them. As international bankers (patterned after the Rothschilds), the Goldbaums have branches in various European capitals, connected by blood ties, common interests, and a remarkable network of couriers. So it is that distant Goldbaum cousins traditionally intermarry, which is why Greta has been betrothed to her kinsman Albert, in London, whom she’s never met. Neither of them has any say in the match.

But that doesn’t mean Greta has to like her bridegroom, or vice versa, and from her point of view, there’s much to dislike. Pedantic, dull, and as straight-laced as they come, Albert has one great passion, collecting butterflies. Greta finds that utterly appalling and cruel. For his part, Albert fears that his stubborn, immodest wife is always seconds away from attracting the wrong kind of attention and creating a scandal.

Passing of the Parliament Bill of 1911 in the House of Lords, Samuel Begg (courtesy Gutenberg Project via Wikimedia Commons)

I seldom read sagas because, fairly or not, I assume them to involve melodrama, contrivance, and an obsession with the surfaces of wealth and power that don’t interest me. But I made an exception for House of Gold, and I’m glad I did. Solomons needs no melodrama or contrivance to tell her tale, because she adeptly introduces the unexpected without resorting to plot twists. A passing sight or ordinary occurrence, unremarkable in itself, becomes a focal point for the characters to seek meaning. Consequently, Greta and Albert reveal their many facets naturally, as does most of the rather large cast of characters. Toward the end, the narrative veers toward contrivance, but even there, Solomons reclaims these moments somewhat by having her characters grapple with their humility.

Also, Solomons has tackled a thorny subject, the bigoted canard about Jews and money, and done so with surehanded brio. If anyone or anything purely represents anti-Semitic delusions, it’s the Rothschilds, which demands that an author conduct a deep, consequential examination of wealth and power. House of Gold delivers. It portrays the delicate balance the Goldbaums must strike, aware that however wealthy and/or ennobled they are, they’re outsiders and always will be. Their family name may permit a demarche in the halls of government, even to the palace or the prime minister’s office, but they know what’s said about them and how precarious their reputations are. Moreover, none can ever be sure that outsiders deal with them candidly; something’s always in play, even in the wedding presents lavished on Greta and Albert:

Two saloons had been set aside for this purpose, and yet still they were not large enough. Clients of the Goldbaums from all over Europe had sent tokens expressing felicity and gratitude, and the silent hope of generous terms in future negotiations. Tables heaved with silver dinner services from President Fallières, and Persian rugs from Emperor Franz Joseph himself. The British empire was expressed in miniature: hand-painted wallpaper from China, a carved chest from the maharajas of Rajasthan filled with finely colored rugs, an ivory jewelry box from Ceylon.… Greta escaped the minute she could, wishing that so many strangers had not been quite so generous, requiring so many hundreds of thank-you letters. If she had remained a moment longer she might have overheard Albert remark that he found the habit of ingratiating gift-giving obsequious and excessive.

Solomons means to recount history, and to some extent, she manages. Against the Goldbaum backdrop, she portrays the Liberal reform of 1911, which diminished the power of the House of Lords; the rise of feminism; and, most significantly to the plot, the First World War, which threatens to destroy the banking house and the family. I like how she conveys the home front, in its shortages and prejudices, the latter of which keep Greta from venturing out where people will hear her Austrian accent. Less successful or convincing is the narrative conceit that America entered the war to protect the extensive loans made to the Allies, a notion that serves the plot but not history and involves an information dump or three.

My other serious complaint involves Otto, Greta’s beloved brother, who needs a flaw or two and more depth in general. I understand the forces that restrain him, but though he appears to have dreams as wide as the heavens — he’s a brilliant astronomer — I don’t know what they are.

Still, I like House of Gold and think it’s worth reading for the central issues explored, the two principal characters, and the myriad details of everyday life that emerge from the narrative.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.