Sixteen years before Johanna Adorján began putting together this book, in October 1991, on a Sunday in a suburb of Copenhagen, the author's Hungarian grandparents, both in their 70s, carried out a pact they had been preparing for months. Lying down beside each other in bed, they followed a careful plan taken from the American bestseller about assisted suicide, Final Exit, and took sleeping pills and an overdose of painkillers.
In An Exclusive Love, her debut, Adorján re-creates that day, pondering the act of choosing to die together, guessing how her grandparents must have felt on the last day of their lives.
On the surface, Vera and Pista were successful survivors of the violence that ripped through their homeland during the war, escaping from the Russian invasion of Hungary by fleeing to Denmark. Reviving her own memories, looking for clues, questioning her grandparents' surviving friends and neighbors, peering at blurry black-and-white photographs, Adorján struggles to penetrate a troubled time when only the lucky survived, trying to understand what no one wants to talk about.
With this book, Adorján is reaching out toward grandparents who died when she was 20, in a touching act of sympathetic imagination, piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of their ruptured lives during the war, revisiting the locales of old photographs. In the process, the author discovers that her grandfather was Jewish and a survivor of a concentration camp, a heritage that had always been kept secret from her.
Adorján is an outsider from her grandparents and struggles to understand herself, too. In her search for her roots at one point she is even convinced to try dating a Jewish man via the online dating service J-Date. But moments of humor are few. The subject is necessarily a sad one, but the memoir is never saccharine or sentimental. It's dominated by the vigorous, overpowering figure of Vera, the grandmother constantly posing with cigarette in hand as though happy and in control, but convinced that no one loves her except her husband, and determined to accompany him into death as she witnesses him physically beginning to fail.
Composed with emotional restraint and a constant respect for the unknown in other people's lives, An Exclusive Love is a portrait of a good marriage in its twilight, of two people lucky enough to have found each other, loved each other and survived the war. Having escaped death, they chose to encounter it on their own terms, together, hand in hand.--Nick DiMartino
Shelf Talker: An exploration by a Danish author of her Hungarian grandparents' lives as World War II survivors, and their suicides in their 70s. In reconstructing the last day of their lives, Johanna Adorján has written a sad but tender story.