WEEREAD: In the Shadow of the Greenbrier by Emily Matchar

The Greenbrier Resort: a vast, opulent luxury hotel nestled within the Allegheny Mountains. Since its opening in 1913, the hotel and its sprawling grounds have provided a getaway for movie stars, U. S. presidents, and foreign dignitaries. However, leisure and recreation are not all the resort has to offer: within its long and storied past, the Greenbrier has also provided space for an Army hospital, a relocation center for Axis diplomats, and a government bunker. Considering all the people and purposes it has served in its 100-plus years of operation, it is no wonder that the town, its visitors, and the Greenbrier itself have their secrets.

It is here, against this landmark backdrop, that In the Shadow of the Greenbrier unravels a family’s history. For four generations, the Greenbrier has loomed large into the lives of the Zelners, a Jewish family made up of immigrants and natural-born Americans alike. The narrative follows four key members of the Zelner family, each representing a different generation: Sol, the patriarch; daughter-in-law Sylvia; granddaughter Doree; and great-grandson Jordan.

A fresh-off-the-boat Lithuanian immigrant looking to avoid being drafted into the Tsar’s army, Sol arrives in White Sulphur Springs just as the Greenbrier is being established. Speaking no English and having only a basic understanding of American geography, Sol is truly a stranger in a strange land but adapts quickly. Sol learns the language and the area working as a peddler, traveling from coal camp to coal camp along the Alleghenies, before opening a storefront and starting a family in White Sulphur Springs. Sol’s American dream is realized when he has a family, the continuation of an unbroken chain “connecting Sol to his family…stretched across an ocean, across the veil between life and death.”

The chain continues with Sol’s son Louis and daughter-in-law Sylvia, an immigrant like Sol, seeking to escape the rising influence of fascism in Poland. Both Sol and Sylvia had to make difficult decisions and leave family to come to America, bonding them in a way neither Sol’s American-born wife nor son can understand. Sylvia struggles to connect with her American-born husband and their children, whose lives and experiences are so different from her own. Trapped in a loveless marriage and out of place in her surroundings, Sylvia makes a risky decision that threatens the fabric of the family.  

As Sylvia’s daughter Doree comes of age during the Cold War and faces her own challenges, including anti-Semitic sentiments from classmates, the chasm between Sylvia and her family grows. College-bound and modern, Doree feels stifled by her family, particularly her immigrant mother and younger brother Alan. Tensions come to a head when Alan pokes around new construction at the Greenbrier, and a classmate of Doree’s threatens to reveal a long-held secret about Sylvia. Torn between her own desires and her loyalty to her family, Doree is forced to make difficult decisions to keep her family intact.

Years later, Doree’s son Jordan attempts to unravel the thread of his family’s complicated history. An up-and-coming journalist at The Washington Post, Jordan receives an anonymous tip regarding a long-kept secret at the Greenbrier—a secret to which his family is somehow tied. Desperate for answers about his family that he cannot seek from his tight-lipped mother, Jordan travels to the Greenbrier. Wanting to better understand his past and eager to uncover a sensational story, Jordan must decide if the truth is worth risking the precarious equilibrium of the family.

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In a saga as sprawling as the Greenbrier itself, author Emily Matchar deftly weaves the history of a family with the history of West Virginia’s long-standing resort. Despite its extensive history and multiple functions, the Greenbrier resort does not often figure heavily into West Virginia literature, thus making In the Shadow of the Greenbrier a fresh perspective. The novel also sets itself apart by focusing on a Jewish family, a perspective not often seen in Appalachian writing. By following four generations of a single family in the same area, Matchar shows the transformation of not only the family and the titular Greenbrier but also of the country. Characters are fully formed and remain sympathetic even when mistakes are made or secrets are kept. Intertwining the history and secrets of people and place makes for an intriguing story that informs as much as it engrosses in this immersive, well-researched novel.

As someone who reads a lot of historical fiction, I consider Matchar’s novel to be a shining example of the genre. In the Shadow of the Greenbrier strikes a delicate balance: it is informative without being dry, unravels secrets without melodrama, and expounds on faith without coming off as “preachy.” In fact, I really enjoyed the discussion of the Jewish tradition throughout and found it to be informative and uplifting in almost equal parts. As explained by Sol to Doree, “This, to me, is what being Jewish is…It’s about being part of an eternal chain. An eternal chain that gives us the strength to go on even when we think we cannot.” This focus on family factors heavily into the narrative and, time and again, gives characters the means to go on despite hardships and secrets. The strength that the Zelners derive from family—even when separated by oceans, generations, and differences—keeps the novel from becoming over-sentimental even as it touches on difficult subjects.

Published in March 2024, this fresh novel is well worth the read and a perfect summertime book. By changing the point-of-view each chapter, Matchar keeps the story moving along nicely with no lulls. A discussion guide is also provided at the end for any readers who may be inclined to use it as a book club pick (which I would recommend). If you do read it, please give this review a comment; I love to hear what others think and talk about books!

In the Shadow of the Greenbrier can be found through most major retailers including Amazon, Walmart, and Barnes & Noble. Happy reading!