The Puzzle King
Peering into window displays at Barney’s, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s, and Henri Bendel has, for decades, delivered countless smiles. In The Puzzle King Betsy Carter creates Simon Phelps, a display designer on par with the best Fifth Avenue has to offer. His innovation and success, however, become as large as the longing for his lost family. For when he was nine, the fatherless Simon Phelps emigrated to America. His brave mother sent him in 1892 from Germany to escape the rising tide of anti-Semitism.
The grown Phelps is a precursor to Larry David, who always carries mints, tissues, and a pen; Simon “carried an umbrella even when the sun was shining, and he always had a spare linen handkerchief neatly folded in his inside pocket. Like any man who is skittish about fate, he tried to be prepared for anything.”
The title has a dual meaning. First it is a synopsis for Simon’s career. His innovative retail designs lead him on a path to developing America’s first mass marketed jigsaw puzzle. Second, the title serves as a melancholic reminder. Simon’s development of the puzzles and his fortune is a byproduct of his brain racing to solve the only puzzle that matters: Where is his family, and how can he get them back?
Carter creates an escalating tension by marking chapters with foreboding dates: “Germany: 1910,” “New York: 1928,” “Germany 1933,” et al. It’s during this time that Simon finally does find family—a new one. Simon falls in love, and in finding his Flora, he discovers friendship too. It is here Betsy Carter fortifies her fiction, sowing a tender tale of intimacy and the bonds of family. In the mix of suspense and foreboding, Carter places us in the heartful lives of Simon and his now wife Flora. Their innocence is speckled with just the right amount of romance: “He kissed her in places he had never been before. She tasted like licorice.” And the not so innocent single sister Seema, in a relationship with married Oliver, adds spice: “He loved the way diamonds shone against her throat and how Dom Pérignon made her kisses tangy.”
Outside of the harbor of their relationships is a world turning toward WWII. We worry about Simon’s lost family and Flora’s relatives still in Germany. Through Simon’s eyes and dramatic irony we can see the impending doom. The tale ends in “Kaiserslautern: April 1936.” It is at this time Nazi concentration camps are being constructed. In August 1939, Hitler will invade Poland.
Carter not only provides a cozy narrative but creates an intimacy with her characters that provides a historical texture, augmenting nonfiction. For example, her character Frederick Ehrlich, Flora’s brother, is a butcher in Kaiserslautern, Germany. As the story progresses we become angry with him for not leaving Germany as the prejudice against the Jewish people escalates. It is through him Carter invites us to understand. “He’d worked at the same store since he’d gotten out of the army in 1917.” Germany is in his blood. Germany is his home. Having fought for it, Frederick believes himself to be more German than any uniform could suggest.
Carter enables readers to visit America’s past through the lens of an immigrant. It is here we find a loving land full of opportunity and promise. The book serves as a wonderful reminder of what is remarkable about our country. And because it is not the goal of the prose to connect those dots, the result is that it has done so in a powerful way. Kudos for Betsy Carter’s puzzle king and for the puzzle kings America has yet to nurture.
Bruce Seymour is a writer from New Haven, CT.