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Review: The Puzzle King

“The Puzzle King,” by Betsy Carter. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 2009. 352 pp. $23.95.By Cynthia Murphy
For the Salisbury Post
A family’s history is bound to contain a mix of fact and fiction. Author Betsy Carter used her family’s legends as the inspiration for her latest novel, “The Puzzle King.”
The result is a beautiful tale of one family’s experiences in America and Germany prior to the start of World War II.
In 1892, 9-year-old Simon Phelps arrives in New York City from Lithuania. His mother sent him to build a better life in America. Simon does not know anyone in New York, but he finds shelter at a boarding house on the Lower East Side.
As a hobby, Simon draws pictures of the people around him. When he draws the final moment of a major prizefight on the sidewalk near his boarding house, Simon catches the eye of a lithographer. This leads to a job as a graphic artist.Along the way, Simon falls in love with a German immigrant, Flora Grossman. They marry and settle into a quiet life in Yonkers. They never have children, but they become very close to Flora’s niece, Edith. Simon gradually builds an advertising empire.
As the Great Depression strikes, Simon has a multi-million dollar idea. He figures out how to construct jigsaw puzzles from inexpensive cardboard. The popularity of the inexpensive puzzles leads to Simon’s nickname of “The Puzzle King.”
Although Simon experiences a great deal of commercial success, he always feels like something is missing from his life. He spends years searching for the family he left in Lithuania. Simon also worries about Flora’s German relatives. He sees the danger for them in the growing wave of anti-Semitism in Europe.
Simon secretly plans to get all of Flora’s relatives out of Germany. This task becomes increasingly difficult as the Nazis place more and more restrictions on the movement of Jews. Simon remains focused on the task and even travels to Europe with Flora to complete his mission.
Carter does a beautiful job of capturing the immigrant experience at the start of the 20th century. The depiction of Simon’s search for a boarding house and his subsequent struggle to assimilate is both poignant and realistic.
Carter provides so many sensory details that the reader seems to experience Simon’s world. She provides a similar level of detail when describing Flora’s family in Germany. Carter juxtaposes the traditional lives of their German relatives with the modern lives of Simon and Flora. The result is a vivid picture of life on both sides of the Atlantic in the years leading up to World War II.There is a fairly large cast of characters in this novel, but each one serves a purpose. Carter’s best efforts appear in the characterizations of Simon and Flora. The characters are opposites in many ways, but they complement each other beautifully. Carter based the characters on her great uncle and aunt.
Two of the other characters are based on Carter’s parents. According to her family’s mythology, her great uncle invented Monopoly. That part is not accurate, but he did figure out how to make puzzles out of cardboard. He really was “America’s Puzzle King.” Most of the other characters are complete works of fiction, but Carter has seamlessly blended them with her family.
“The Puzzle King” is a definite departure from Carter’s most recent novel, “Swim to Me.” Since it is based on family legends, it feels much more personal. It feels like the reader is peeking into a family’s history. Carter’s lyrical prose captures the era and retains a personal touch. Overall, “The Puzzle King” is an engaging and moving novel.
Cynthia Murphy is a reader living in Salisbury.

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