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Sister Act

Arizona novelist imagines Anne Frank's sibling living in the U.S.

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What if Anne Frank's older sister survived Bergen-Belsen and fled to America? Young-adults author and Arizona resident Jillian Cantor's novel Margot offers a tantalizing, satisfying what-if, despite the hallowed subject matter. To tamper with Holocaust literature's most cherished account, The Diary of Anne Frank, requires skill and sensitivity. A writer risks penning morbid, insulting fan fiction.

Thankfully, Margot is a great read. In reality, Anne Frank's sister died in the death camp. But Cantor conjures an alternate history: Margot Frank escapes. Rescued by a German nun, she immigrates to Philadelphia. Posing as a gentile with the name Margie Franklin, she lands a job as a secretary at a Jewish law firm. Life as an American is lonely for her, but at least it's a life far removed from the Nazi atrocities.

The novel's emotional core largely hinges on a love triangle. Peter van Pels was a boy who hid in the infamous annex with the Franks. Cantor says in an author's note:

One of the things I distinctly remembered from my teenage reading of the diary was Anne's relationship with Peter. But rereading the diary many years later, I noticed that while Anne wrote of her own growing feelings for Peter, she also wrote and wondered whether Margot might like him too. Which led me to also wonder: how might Margot have felt about Peter, and how might Peter have felt about her?

The year is 1959. Confronted at every street corner by bookstores hawking her sister's published diary and by posters announcing a just-released Hollywood film adaptation, Margot is haunted. She's also half in love with her boss, Joshua. She waits for him at a deli, where he plans to share with her important news regarding a group-litigation case the firm is secretly working on. Cantor never uses the term post-traumatic stress disorder, but it's clear from this passage that Margot isn't well.

I swallow some soup and will myself to also swallow away the image of my sister's ghost. But even as I put down my spoon and pull the thin yellow paper with the two names on it out of my satchel, her face stays in my mind. Paragon of virtue, she whispers. Living your great American life hiding in your thick sweater. What do you think you're doing here, now, at lunch with your boss?

Joshua arrives, chatting about the new Anne Frank film he recently watched.

"It's not really a movie you can like, is it?" Joshua is saying. "It's more like school. Where you know you have to go and learn. Or going to the doctor. You know it's good for you. That you should do it. But you don't exactly enjoy it."

But the movie impacts Joshua. He sees, with increasing clarity, that his lawyering keeps guilty rich folks out of jail. So he assigns Margot a special task, with a pay raise. He puts out a newspaper ad with her phone number. She must take phone calls day and night in her apartment from Jews who've worked for a finery company with anti-Semitic policies. The ploy doesn't work, since Jews still desire a low profile in the U.S., which means Margot must go around to the synagogues.

"What would happen to a Jew who pretends not to be a Jew?" she asks a rabbi at one point. His response: "God knows. You can't hide from God."

Margot can't hide from Joshua's scariest client, a millionaire wife-killer who during legal-counsel visits takes a troubling interest in her. In a thrilling scene, he stalks her outside the office like a Nazi jackboot trailing a Star of David-pinned Jew.

Margot's co-workers suspect something between her friend and Joshua. Wealthy socialite Penny, always snappily dressed, has her eye on the promising young lawyer. More pressing is Margot's discovery of a P. Pelt in Philly. She has an address. Is it her long lost beau from the annex? The boy she and Anne both loved?

As you probably realize now, Margot is less a literary novel than a subtle romantic-suspenser, a horror-tinged drama. Cantor's plot is clockwork; her prose is efficient if rarely dazzling. There's a terrific moment when Margot finally sits in a theater to watch the movie about her sister. Margot mentally addresses the screen.

While Margot is a tale well told, there are a few plot elements left hanging and red-herringed, which may not satisfy every reader. Still, anyone who enjoys historical fiction or (forgive me for using the term) post-chick lit will admire Cantor's novel. It's a rewarding fictional addendum to an incredible real-life story.

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