An Exclusive Love, by Johanna Adorján
Norton, January 31, 2011
When Johanna Adorján was 20 years old, in October 1991, her grandparents killed themselves in their tidy little house in a suburb of Copenhagen. This is their story, and it’s a love story.
In An Exclusive Love, Adorján explores her grandparents’ relationship, from their first meeting in Budapest in 1940 to their final days together, more than 50 years later. Her grandfather, István (known as Pista), survived internment at Mauthausen and Gunskirchen concentration camps during the Holocaust, while her grandmother, Veronika (Vera), who was pregnant with their first child when Pista was taken away, managed to obtain forged papers for herself and her son during the German occupation of Hungary, though her parents were executed. Pista and Vera later fled Hungary with their children during the 1956 uprising and lived the rest of their lives in Denmark. In this section, Adorján describes their early courtship:
Apparently my grandmother knew the first time they met that this was the man she was going to marry. Or at least, that’s how she often told the story. In the family we also know what happened between them next. It’s one of those stories retold so often that after a while you know it couldn’t have been different, it was just like that. A family legend. The two of them made a date to go for a walk. And after that they liked each other so much that they made a date to go for another walk. And then another. Each of them thought the other was crazy about walking. They were both entirely mistaken. When that point was cleared up after a while, it’s said that they were enormously relieved.
Adorján interweaves her own memories of her grandparents with the stories she has heard from their friends and family, bringing both of them vividly to life, but especially her proud and sophisticated grandmother. Vera combined a fierce and independent nature with an intense devotion to Pista, which grew out of her certainty that nobody else loved her as much as he did, and which resulted, finally, in her desire to follow him into death. In spare, unsentimental prose, Adorján recreates the day of their suicide: eating breakfast, taking their dog to the home of a friend (who believed they were going to Munich for a few days), bedding down their roses for the coming winter, counting out their sleeping pills. Though the end of this short, powerful book is no surprise, somehow it still feels shocking.
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