Rosa: A Novel and The Death Instinct

(Berkeley, CA) Two recent novels that are impossible to avoid comparing are Jonathan Rabb’s Rosa: A Novel and Jeb Rubenfeld’s The Death Instinct. Both are set in the immediate aftermath of World War I in a great city of a combatant power (Berlin and New York, respectively). Both involve mass murder, terrorism, and a political conspiracy. Both include cameo appearances by major historical figures: Freud and Madame Curie in The Death Instinct; Einstein and Käthe Kollwitz in Rosa. Both involve revolutionary ideas: psychoanalysis and communism. Both foreshadow the horrors that will follow in the 20th century. In both cases, the protagonist is a tough urban detective who gets sucked into politics for the first time as he tries to solve the original crime. A beautiful but troubled waif plays a significant role in each book.

Since the comparison is unavoidable, I must say that Rabb’s novel is far better. The characters are much more complex, the issues more serious, and the emotional pull much stronger from Rabb’s flawed protagonist than from Rubenfeld’s idealized heroes.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.