Book Club Kit
At the beginning of the novel, the Goldbaum family is legendarily wealthy. How do their fortunes change throughout the story? Are things different for the Goldbaum family at the end of the war? If so, how?
of the themes of the novel is duty to family. How does Greta feel about doing her duty and marrying Albert? How do the young men feel about their duty? How does Otto respond? Does Henri neglect his duty through his relationship with Claire? Does this make him romantic or selfish?
3. Greta does not want to marry, and particularly does not want to marry Albert. How does her understanding of her husband change over time? Do you think their marriage is successful? How does marriage change Greta?
does Greta adore her cousin Henri so much? What about his lifestyle appeals to her? How does his relationship with Claire influence Greta’s own perspective on love?
5. The Goldbaums are a Jewish family. How does their faith shape their role in society? Does this change as World War I sweeps across Europe? How does being Jewish shape Greta’s choices?
6. Why is Greta so loath to move to England? What about the country surprises her? How does Greta find satisfaction in her new English life? Do you think that she finds happiness?
7. What does gardening mean to Greta? How is her garden different from the other Goldbaum gardens? How does she feel about the other
family gardens? Does the family’s attitude toward gardens change as the war rages on?
8. While Clement and Albert are brothers, the two are very different. How does Albert understand his family’s role in World War I? Does Clement see things differently? Are there expectations that each Goldbaum man faces? Do you feel that Clement’s neglect of his duty burdens Albert?
9. How is motherhood explored throughout House of Gold? What role are women supposed to play in the Goldbaum family? Is the baroness a good mother? What about Greta? What does Greta learn from her mother-in-law?
do Karl’s and Otto’s stories intertwine? Why do you think the two men are drawn to each other? How does Karl’s perspective change our understanding of Otto?
11. Late in the novel, Greta makes an “accidental deal with God” (p. 424). Why does she make this bargain? Do you think it affects the outcome of the war? How do you think Greta will feel about this deal after the war ends?
12. Discuss the role of women in House of Gold. How is Greta’s experience of World War I different from that of her brother and her husband? Do you think this is a feminist novel?
you surprised by the novel’s ending? What did you think would happen to Greta, Albert, and Otto?
A conversation with
natasha solomons What inspired you to write House of Gold? Hanging in my parents’ house is a portrait of one my ancestors in the Frankfurt ghetto: a serious man in a black skullcap. He was a tutor and neighbor to the Rothschild children. Families in the ghetto had to choose a sign to distinguish themselves—my ancestors, the Schwarzschilds, picked a black shield, and the Rothschilds a red one.
© David Solomons
This tiny brush with the famous Rothschilds amused and intrigued me. Yet following the journey of both families—one wildly successful, one modest (with the odd painter, scientist, and gambler)—is what helped me discover the story for my novel House of Gold. I wanted to write about a family of huge wealth and power but set apart and considered “other” because of their Jewishness.
The Goldbaum family is loosely based on the Rothschild dynasty. Why did you want to write about these families? So much Jewish history of the last century is about oppression and death. Yet the Rothschilds were a symbol of power and of hope to other Jews, particularly those poor and subjugated in Eastern Europe. The fictional Goldbaums are similarly powerful and almost unimaginably wealthy, but unlike most of the aristocrats in Europe at the time, their wealth is earned. They are more like the American industrialists or new money, and were considered by many to be gauche and bourgeois, viewed with even more intense suspicion by the establishment because of their Jewishness. To me, that makes the Goldbaums interesting— to be both singularly powerful, intricately involved in international affairs and needed by governments and emperors, and yet still be vulnerable and isolated.
How much of the novel is true to history and how much is your own invention? I think every historical novelist starts with a huge amount of research, but the truth spins into fiction. Sometimes things that are true don’t feel true on the page! For instance, when writing about the Goldbaum gardens, I actually had to reduce the numbers of glasshouses and gardeners—the Rothschilds had so many that I worried a reader wouldn’t believe the fiction. The characters are all imaginary. Some are inspired by my own family stories. My great-great-uncle Karl was a friend of Einstein and developed a theory on black holes known as the Schwarzschild Continuum. There is
even a crater on the moon named after him, and Einstein wrote his eulogy. It was Karl who inspired the character of Otto in House of Gold.
At the beginning of the novel, the Goldbaums are endlessly wealthy. Is this kind of fortune realistic for the time? How did World War I challenge families like those that inspired the Goldbaums? What role did their finances play in World War I? Yes, there were several incredibly wealthy Jewish banking families in the early twentieth century. The Rothschilds were probably the most famous but there were also the Sassoons (the “Rothschilds of the East”) a Sephardic lineage almost as wealthy and as powerful. Ernest Cassell was one of the wealthiest men of his day as well as a friend of British prime ministers Asquith and Churchill. There were the Goldsmiths, the Montefiores, and the Montagues. World War I was a huge challenge, as it nearly bankrupted many of the European banking houses (Jewish and otherwise). Prior to the war, these kinds of private banks made their money by lending internationally to foreign governments. During wartime, this would have been treason, so their principal business was halted. There is a lot of nonsense written about how the Jewish banks profited from World War I. As I make clear in the novel, this is absolutely not true. Like other clearinghouses and merchant banks, many faced ruin during the war and struggled to recover in the years that followed. The House of Goldbaum, like the real Jewish banks at the time, do their best to support their governments during the conflict, lending as much as they are able and floating loans to the British and French public, and eventually with limited success to the American people.
What kind of research did you do to write the novel? I researched this novel differently from my others. Usually I write and research all at the same time.
However, in the early stages of House of Gold, I was actually reading an email on my phone (coincidentally from my US editor) and absolutely not concentrating on closing the car door properly and managed to trap my finger and break it. So, instead of writing, I found myself having surgery on my finger and reading a vast amount for several months, quite unable to type. I read financial histories, social histories, medical history, diaries translated from German, Russian; women’s journals and British newspapers; books on the pogroms and on German and Austrian blood libel trials. I interviewed garden historians and visited historic gardens and attended lectures.
While House of Gold captures the wartime experiences of many characters—from the city centers to the battlefields—a large part of the novel is focused on Greta’s experience as a woman left alone at home. What was World War I like for women? Why did you want to focus the story on the home front? During the war there was a hierarchy of bodies, with men considered the most important and women the least. Hospitals were given over to looking after men wounded from the war. But people in Britain still continued to get sick at the same rate as before; they still required surgeries and had the same number of accidents—or more, with more people working in dangerous factories doing war work. Yet there were fewer hospital beds for them and the majority of these people were women. Those who suffered the most were pregnant and laboring women. Before the war, the government had tried hard to reduce the death rate among women during childbirth and to reduce infant mortality, but during the war the numbers began to climb again. These are some of the unheeded causalities of war. Women’s hospitals were given over to men. Suture silk was reserved for men; women’s bodies weren’t worthy of it. This felt to me like a story that needed to be told. I’ve given birth to two children and I’m really glad that I wasn’t stitched up with catgut or fishing twine.
So much Jewish history of the last century is about oppression and death. Yet, the Rothschilds were a symbol of power and of hope to other Jews, particularly those poor and subjugated in Eastern Europe.
The Goldbaums are a Jewish family. Did you always intend to write about the Jewish experience of World War I? In what ways does their faith shape their experiences during the war? Why do you think it’s important for modern-day readers to understand this time in Jewish history? I wanted to write about war away from the Western Front, which has been featured so brilliantly in other novels and films. I also wasn’t interested in writing a story about “goodies and baddies.” War is so much more complicated than that, and hence part of the story is from the point of view of Otto, a Jewish officer in the AustroHungarian army on the Eastern front. Otto, like my own great-grandfather, was supposed to be grateful that he was an officer, considering that he was Jewish. Particularly in the German Army, Jews were viewed with suspicion. Official surveys were issued where commanding officers were told to report specifically on the conduct of Jewish soldiers: Did they shirk? How often were they injured compared to the other men and so on. We are more familiar with the horrific events of World War II and the Holocaust, but the seeds of distrust toward Jews—the simmering resentment and suspicion—can already be seen during World War I.
As Greta settles into life in England, she falls in love with the English tradition of gardening. Is gardening a passion of yours? Why did you decide to include it in this novel? I am not yet a passionate gardener (weeding takes as much time as editing, and having two small children I can either weed or edit) but I adore my garden. My studio looks down on the garden and out to the hill beyond. The English are celebrated for our love of gardens, and English writers have always understood that characters reveal themselves through their gardens. The
outside spaces in this novel are really explorations of the characters: as Jews, the Goldbaums are passionate about gardens as a result of having been banned from the public parks in Frankfurt. There were no gardens in the ghetto. Now, possessing incredible wealth, they choose to create remarkable and splendid gardens, both to display their power and to remind themselves of how far they have come. The Goldbaums are famous for their formal parterre gardens (immaculate low hedges, gravel walkways, pristine beds of annual flowers, fountains and statuary). But I wanted to show Greta as a different kind of Goldbaum, who hankers for a different kind of garden. She worries that although her mother-in-law encourages her to create a garden, it’s a ruse to remake Greta herself into the right kind of Goldbaum woman: as ordered and self-contained as a Goldbaum parterre. Greta wants to rebel. She wants a garden in which to misbehave: one of rambling roses and hidden corners and wildflowers and long grass. A garden of defiance.
Greta is an independent and headstrong woman. Is she based on a real woman you know? In what ways was she ahead of her time? Do you think she’s a feminist character? I’d like to think that there is a some of me in Greta, and also some of my daughter, who, although she is small, is utterly willful. The rest of Greta is fictional, although she is inspired by characters such as Elizabeth in Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim. I think the word feminist is tricky for the period—Greta herself wouldn’t recognize it. She is not a suffragette and is irritated by Edith’s tactics to gain the vote. But Greta is outraged at the way men are prioritized over women, and she quietly refuses to obey almost any instruction given to her by her husband or father-in-law. She is also unembarrassed by the fact that she enjoys sex—not something that many women admitted then, even to themselves.
Greta is outraged at the way men are prioritized over women, and she quietly refuses to obey almost any instruction given to her by her husband or father-in-law.
Did you know where Greta and Albert’s relationship would lead at the beginning of the novel? Were there moments in their relationship that surprised you while you were writing? I knew that I wanted to write a love story between a husband and wife, and also a love story in reverse, one that starts with marriage and ends with—well, I can’t give that away, can I?
This is your fifth novel, and you also work as a screenwriter. How was writing this story different than writing your previous novels? Do you write differently for the screen than you do when writing fiction? Is there one form you prefer? This story is an epic! My children tell me that I’ve been writing it their whole lives (true for one of them). . . So that does feel different. Yes, writing for the screen is different—I’m not a fan of voiceover in general, so you have to work very hard to get across a character’s internal thoughts. But we’re living in a golden age of television, where one of the greatest compliments a viewer can give a series is to call it “novelistic.” It used to be that writing a novel gave one the greatest freedom to imagine—the budgets for sets and vehicles and costumes are limitless—while in TV one was always restrained by practicalities. Yet with online streaming services, everything is changing. Budgets are eye-wateringly huge. We want to see things on screen with the richness that we glimpse in our mind’s eye. TV has influenced the novelist, too. We’ve had to up our game. Yet we must also dwell on those parts of storytelling that are difficult to show on screen—
to linger in the pleasure of a character’s private thoughts, to understand them from the inside. Honestly, I love both. It’s a joy and a privilege to be able to move between the two forms.
While the novel is about World War I, there are many parallels for today’s world, too. What do you think twenty-first-century readers can take from House of Gold? Yes, I think this is the most frightening part of House of Gold. When I started the book, I thought I was writing historical fiction. I was researching blood libel trials in the early twentieth century and the conspiracy theories surrounding Jewish bankers— this libelous idea that they secretly started World War I as the Jewish banks stood to benefit from war (an absolute fallacy; many European Jewish banks, like other banks in Europe, actually faced bankruptcy as a consequence of the war). Yet now the political situation in the UK and US has changed. Formerly fringe conspiracy ideas are coming out of the shadows and into the mainstream. We live in a world where anti-Semitism is considered acceptable by many. I have regular pop-ups on my Facebook feed about “Jewish conspiracies” and “Jews controlling banks and the media.” I wish House of Gold felt more like a historical novel.
This is a quiet and personal act of rebellion, but no less profound.
NATASHA SOLOMONS is a screenwriter and novelist who lives in Dorset, England, with her husband and two children. Solomons is the New York Times–bestselling author of four novels and her work has been translated into seventeen languages.
“The food was excellent, unfussy and decidedly Austrian in flavor:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
1 Granny Smith apple—peeled, cored, and coarsely shredded 3 Granny Smith apples—peeled, cored, and sliced 1 cup brown sugar
Place apples in a large bowl. Stir in brown sugar and golden raisins; set aside. Place puff pastry on baking sheet. Roll lightly with a rolling pin. Arrange apple filling down the middle of the pastry lengthwise. Fold the pastry lengthwise around the mixture.
1 cup golden raisins
Seal edges of pastry by using a bit of water on your fingers, and rubbing the pastry edges together.
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
Whisk egg and milk together, and brush onto top of pastry.
1 egg 1/4 cup milk 1 cup heavy cream
For cream: Using an electric beater, whip 1 cup heavy cream to soft peaks, then add in sugar and whisk to firm peaks. Serve each slice with a dollop of cream on top.
From the New York Times bestselling author of The House at Tyneford, an epic family saga about a headstrong Austrian heiress who will be for...
Published on Jun 27, 2019
From the New York Times bestselling author of The House at Tyneford, an epic family saga about a headstrong Austrian heiress who will be for...