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I’m always on the lookout for new romance novels to read—especially those dealing with places and time periods that are somewhat unique to romances (i.e., anywhere other than the Scottish Highlands in the 18th century). Therefore, I was excited to find Perfidia by Elspeth McKendrick. Set in 1939 Berlin, it seemed like an atypical romance novel. And it certainly was different—but not necessarily in a good way.

At the beginning of the book, Sophie de Haviland is living a sophisticated and comfortable life in London, England—that is, until she finds her fiancée in flagrante delicto with his (male) best friend. Brokenhearted and disgusted, Sophie moves to Berlin to live with a wealthy and well-connected aunt. While there, she makes a few girlfriends and is introduced to the elite of Berlin society—which, in 1939, included many handsome SS officers. One such officer is Karl von Richten. Karl is half-American, half-German, and devastatingly handsome. At best, he seems to be an aloof and calculating manipulator, and, at worst, he’s a grade-A jerk. As the novel went on, though, I began to see that Karl acted as a metaphor for the Third Reich: on the outside, he’s charming and alluring, but on the inside, he’s cold, unyielding, and often dangerous.

When Sophie’s aunt begins to see cracks appearing in the Reich’s glittering exterior, she decides to leave the country and go back to England—no matter how dangerous and difficult such a task had become. Karl offers to help Sophie and her aunt—but only if Sophie agrees to be his live-in mistress (since, at that point in time, Heinrich Himmler had ordered all SS officers, married or single, to maintain relationships with “ideal Aryan” women). Sophie reluctantly agrees, and she’s soon swept up in a whirlwind of high-ranking Nazi officials, lust, and intrigue—including a plot to assassinate Hitler himself.

I found Perfidia to be a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s extremely accurate when dealing with history and the atrocities of the Third Reich, and while such accuracy was refreshing to see in a romance novel, it was often difficult to read—and I found my stomach actually turning while reading certain passages. I know that we’re supposed to be disgusted and revolted by the actions and dogma of Hitler and the Nazis, but I read romance novels for the fluffy, escapist atmosphere. I appreciate a little tension in my books, and I learned in college theory classes that art is supposed to make the viewer (or reader, in this case) a little uncomfortable at times—but this was all just too much. Even the love scenes were disconcerting; they can only be described as “hate sex,” which very rarely sits well with me.

All in all, Perfidia can be summed up in three words: shocking, disturbing, and depressing. A nice change of pace from the norm, but I certainly won’t be reading it again. If I want a history lesson, I think I’ll watch Schindler’s List instead.

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