From The Washington Post's Book World
Reviewed by by Ron Charles
During the pause between world wars, a Jewish businessman and his new wife commissioned a startlingly modern house for themselves in Czechoslovakia. They hired the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and gave him free rein to design an avant-garde structure that looks like a Mondrian painting in three dimensions: a long, low building of dramatic straight lines, marked by a large room with floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Unbelievably, this elegant house survived the dismemberment of the First Republic of Czechoslovakia, German bombing, Soviet invasion and the natural forces that conspire against a neglected building. The Villa Tugendhat, which has been a public museum since the mid-1990s, remains a masterpiece of minimalist architecture, and now it's the evocative setting for a stirring new novel that almost won this year's Booker Prize. The author, Simon Mawer, moves through six decades of European history, much of it unspeakably tragic, using the glass house as a window on the hopes and fears of its various inhabitants and the conflicts that rip Europe apart. Pianists and Nazis, doctors and servants, everyone is drawn to the living room's extraordinary vista and feels aroused by the promise of such clarity: This is "a place of balance and reason," Mawer writes, "an ageless place held in a rectilinear frame that handles light like a substance and volume like a tangible material and denies the very existence of time." But the architecture proves purer than the human spirit. Again and again, the residents of this glass house find they can't tolerate the light of full disclosure even as they're attracted to it.
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