Cover image for Breath and shadows
Breath and shadows
Leffland, Ella.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W. Morrow, [1999]

Physical Description:
311 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Geographic Term:
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Breath and Shadows is about three pairs of people who live in widely separated periods of time -- the late 1700s, late 1800s, and late 1900s. These people, as gradually becomes clear, are three generations of the same family, none of which has any knowledge of the other two. But there exists down through these far-flung generations a meshwork of cause and effect that reverberates all the way into the present.

The interrelatedness of these three pairs of people, the twining of their destinies, is the core of the book.

Though the novel takes place in three different centuries, it is rooted in such timeless attributes as social mores, class and money, as well as in historical events such as the battle at Leipzig, where Napoleon was crushed, and the ruins of Berlin in 1945.

These events are woven through the private lives of the characters, among whom are a lonely and young officer, a sculptress trying to find truth in the stone she works with, a man terrified of flying who forces himself to fly constantly, a woman who embodies the ineffable bond between an animal and a human being, and others responding to their world, their natures and their needs. It is a novel about the attempt of human beings to know the past, to know one another and to know themselves. It is about love, loss, sexual passion, human perception and the possibility that the search for goodness may be an act of insanity.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The Rosteds of Denmark carry a love of beauty and a propensity for madness in their blood, a blessing and a curse that grace and haunt each generation. Leffland, author of The Knight, Death, and the Devil (1989), moves among three branches of the Rosted family tree, dramatizing the obsessions and eccentricities of a cast of unforgettable characters. Thorkild is a dwarf so misshapen he resembles a monstrous beetle, a grotesque exterior that conceals a noble soul. He not only must contend with the world's fear and hostility but also is consumed by grief for his son, who died in the Napoleonic Wars. Next in line is Thorkild's great-granddaughter, Grethe, a lovely wife and mother and gifted translator who loses all to the demons threaded in her genes. Then there are her grandchildren, an American brother and sister who, now in their 50s, find themselves at loose ends and inexplicably drawn to Copenhagen and the mysteries of their past. Leffland writes with a grandeur and an omnipotence reminiscent of nineteenth-century fiction as she explores the inexorability of inheritance and our stubborn battle against it in a wise and poetic novel as enchanting and resonant as a fairy tale. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

The breadth and seriousness of Leffland's imagination has been evident in her four previous novels (most recently, The Knight, Death and the Devil), none of which resembles the other, and each of which combines formidable narrative gifts with a fidelity to background and to human nature. Here, the fragile beacon of moral integrity defies an enigmatic hereditary gloom and illuminates a richly imagined story of three generations of a Danish family over two centuries. Thorkild, born a dwarf and now a widowed financial adviser living in early 19th century Copenhagen, has been tormented by shame over his handicap all his life. When his beloved son and only child is killed in the battle of Leipzig, he gradually grows unhinged with grief, and his sister commits him to a mental institution. This tragic legacy becomes an unhealthy fixation for Thorkild's granddaughter, Grethe Rosted, the novel's second character, a happily married mother of two residing on the Northern Danish coast in the 1880s. Despite her pleasant life as a member of the liberal bourgeois circles then revolutionizing Scandinavian culture, Grethe slowly goes mad and devastates her family in one terrible, irreversible act. Paula, a middle-aged American woman living in present-day Switzerland, is the novel's third character and the granddaughter that Grethe never knew. She has fled a staid existence as the wife of a Swiss attorney to sculpt in a remote village in the Jura mountains, where she ponders the same painful questions that, unknown to her, anguished her ancestors: "It was as if God, if one believed in God, had forgotten to finish His task when He created human beings, had left out some essential, some terribly needed ingredient." Though the plot's complex genealogy is at times hard to follow, and the callousness and cruelty of some of the characters sometimes contrasts too neatly with the gentleness of those they harm, the theme resonates powerfully nonetheless. Leffland's graceful, poetic prose and her ability to create indelibly vivid settings (from a small hut in the Jura mountains to the bustle of 18th-century Copenhagen) is dazzling. Her intelligent, unsentimental assessment of the harshness that coexists with the beauty of life is beautifully conveyed through this clan's family inheritance of passion and disenchantment. Agent: Lois Wallace. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This time around, Leffland (The Knight, Death and the Devil, LJ 2/1/90) offers an interesting multigenerational book, partly contemporary, partly historical. It's not exactly a family saga, since the three generations represent branches that have broken off the tree and have no knowledge of the family as a whole. Leffland first introduces Gerthe and Holger, a vibrant young married couple in 1880s Denmark. She then moves back in time 150 years to Gerthe's great-grandfather Thorkild, a dwarf who is mourning his son (Gerthe's grandfather) lost in the Napoleonic wars. The present is represented by Paula and Philip, an American sister and brother who grew up with a stepfather, knowing only that their Danish father (Gerthe's son)‘who died when they were infants‘had bored their mother. The three stories eventually form a cohesive whole but demand much on the reader's part on the way there. Recommended for larger fiction collections, or where there is particular interest in Danish American stories.‘Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati Technical Coll. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



"Take care!" The cry is heard simultaneously with the banging open of the double doors; and still hooting imprecations, the nursemaid follows hard on the heels of two blue-smocked small boys who come pounding into the room with a cat madly struggling in the arms of one. "Oh, poor Olaf," their mother calls imploringly form over her needlework, "oh, do put him down." But Olaf is already leaping wildly free with ears laid back, and now he shoots across the Turkish rug to crouch, striped fur on end, beside a potted palm: a small, ratty-looking stray whose scarred body and notched, unsymmetrical ears--one is permanently twisted--bear witness to his early wanderings. He is still given to wandering, and disappears for days into the woods that spread away from the house; but he always comes back to the creature over there, she who coaxed him in from the snow one freezing dusk long before. His alert, pale green eyes followed the boys, whom he saw as two frantic beasts, as they ran first to their mother's chair for their goodnight embrace and then to their father's and then dashed back out, almost colliding with the maid and her tray. "Take care!" cried the nurse again, pursuing them on down the hallway as the maid in her white lace apron and beribboned cap came into the room. It was a spacious, richly upholstered drawing room with tall windows overlooking the Oresund, the sound that lies between Denmark and Sweden. A great floor-to-ceiling ceramic stove, with flowers and winged animals painted on its sea-green tiles, radiated a broad and cozy warmth. The walls were covered with paintings in carved gilt and ebony frames-seascapes, landscapes, ancestral portraits of bishops and army officers. Fresh flowers stood everywhere. The maid, very young though heavy-featured and square of shape, took in her surroundings with a pleased and cavalier air. She carried a Florentine tray on which stood a carafe and two small glasses, for the master and mistress liked their sip of apricot liqueur of a quiet evening, and they liked it served on this tray from their Italian wedding trip. That was before her time, she'd been with them only a few weeks, but she knew everything about the trip because she'd asked. Why not? First by carriage down the coast to Copenhagen, then by steamer down to Germany, then by train down the rest of the fantastic long way, and she herself had never even been to Sweden-not that there was much there but poor people emigrating to America--but so near that as she passed the windows she could see the glow of coastal lights across the water. She glanced from the tall windows to the tall potted palms. She had never imagined, coming from a cramped little row cottage, that there could be such a thing as trees inside a dwelling. They had made her nervous at first, but now she felt entirely at ease with them, as with everything else in the house. She even made improvements in her mind. For instance, she'd sweep out the cat. Peasants kept cats, not people of standing. And not even a peasant would keep a wretched eyesore like Olaf. But she didn't hold this against her employers, for you couldn't find a more generous, easygoing young couple, especially the mistress. And both of them a great pleasure to look at, for the maid very much liked comely, glossy-haired, well-dressed people. These two had more than their fair share of good looks--as they had more than their fair share of everything--and even resembled each other a bit, being cousins, if only distant, having in common a great-great-great-grandsomething-or-other back in the mists of time. She knew this because she'd asked. She'd asked about the bishops and soldiers on the wall. Why shouldn't she? Why should she hang back? Having set the tray down by Hr. Rosted, she turned to Fru Rosted with enlarged and tragic eyes. "I know it's fearful late to ask--but could Fruen please give me tomorrow off'stead of Thursday? I'd never ask--not on my mother's grave I wouldn't--only tomorrow's the last day of the Horsholm fair, the very last day! Oh, if Fruen only knew how much I been wanting and wanting--" "But go then, " Fru Rosted's mild voice broke in. "Go to your fair by all means. Peace be on your agitated soul." At which the girl bobbed brightly and left the room. "I know," she said to her husband as she drew a wood thread through the material on her lap. She was making a small needlepoint rug; a design of pale and dark yellow roses was woven against an almost finished background of russet. "Too soft, Grethe," he said, lowering his book with a good-natured headshake. Hr. Rosted was a very tall, strapping young man not quite thirty, clean-shaven, with a mass of bronze hair, and dark strong brows over eyes of deep warmth. "Every maid in the universe is given a half-day off. But not ours. No, they must all have a full day. Well, that's fine, that's as it should be. But this one-this one has already grown so bold as to choose whichever day suits her. Too soft, my love. And here comes another petitioner." Finally seeing his way clear, Olaf was swiftly loping to his creature's side. It was more concerned with the cat's welfare than the children's. "But a cat isn't like a person," she said, leaning from her chair and stroking the animal by its twisted ear. "A cat is all alone, Holger. A cat cannot express itself in words. Olaf cannot say what he feels inside him." "My dear Grethe, the only feeling inside Olaf is the wish for a big juicy herring." And he gave a mock duck of his shoulders as she, with smiling aim, threw a tangle of thread at him, their eyes meeting in a look of shared and familiar humor, and of deepest, most intimate love. His eyes lingered on her as she took up her needle and thread again, the unsightly animal nestling in the folds of the gown around her feet. The lamplight fell on her honey-colored hair, parted in the center with small locks along the brow, above them a smooth broad plait like a crown. On her lowered cheek he knew just where the captivating dimple appeared when she laughed. He knew the exact shade of her so much more than pretty, so much more than captivating gray eyes, candid, witty, tender. If he were a poet, like Bodtcher, whose open book he held in his lap, he would write one of the world's great love songs. Olaf slept in the warm folds. Suddenly he woke as the huger of the two creatures came looming over him in what he experienced as a towering confusion of movement and noise, and which sent him speeding back to the potted palm. Hr. Rosted, carrying the two small glasses, seated himself on the brocade arm of his wife's chair. They sipped, they talked, and from time to time their faces came together in a protracted kiss. They were a couple who on their walks always held hands, no common sight in the 1880's, who at the dinner table would each move a foot to seek and caress the other's, whose bed in the morning was a wildly tumbled map of ardor. Thus it was a good while Olaf waited before Hr. Rosted ventured back and settled in once more. Presently Hr. Rosted began to read aloud from his book. --water that languished in winter's chain break glittering loose again. From sheltered shad, in darkening glade, My ears may capture The nightingale's rapture-- Excerpted from Breath and Shadows by Ella Leffland All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.