Tucson author Jillian Cantor’s spare, elegant new novel, “Margot,” begins with a startling premise: What if Anne Frank’s sister had survived the Holocaust and was living under an assumed name in Philadelphia?
Cantor, 35, says the first time she read “The Diary of a Young Girl” at age 13, she identified with Anne, as so many young Jewish girls do. It wasn’t until she reread the diary almost 20 years later that she was struck by the story of Margot, the older sister who also kept a diary (never found) in the annex.
But it never occurred to Cantor as she was writing “Margot” that there was any chutzpah involved in the project, that she was treading on what some people might consider almost sacred ground.
In fact Cantor, an award-winning author with several books for teens and adults to her credit, began “Margot” after her previous manuscript failed to find a publisher. “I thought, well, no one might ever read this. It might never sell,” she told the AJP.
“But I wanted to do it. It was something personal to me, that I wanted to write — and I would want to read,” she says.
It wasn’t until her agent began submitting “Margot” to editors that Cantor realized the topic could be controversial. “Everybody seemed to like the book but it made some people nervous,” she says. But she found an editor at Riverhead Books, part of the Penguin Group, “who loved it and just totally understood it.”
As the book opens, it is April 1959 and we meet Margie Franklin, who works at a Jewish law firm in Philadelphia. A quiet woman, she hides her past with a fierce determination, holding on to promises whispered in an attic long ago. But as “The Diary of Anne Frank” comes to the silver screen and her sister becomes a global symbol of hope and courage, Margie’s carefully constructed life begins to come apart.
“I read somewhere that the sibling relationship is the longest and most important relationship you’ll have in your life,” says Cantor, who like Margot is the older of two sisters. “I think definitely that’s true. My first memory is of my sister being born and coming home.”
It’s one of the most complicated relationships you can have, she adds, “where you can just hate each other and then the next moment, turn around and do anything for each other.”
Cantor, who lives on Tucson’s east side with her husband and two sons, grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia. Her father grew up in the city about the time that “Margot” takes place and was one of her best references, she says, along with Google Earth. She attended Penn State University as an undergraduate, then got her Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Arizona and stayed on in Tucson.
Growing up, her family wasn’t very religious. “We were Jewish on the holidays and that was when it became obvious to me that we were different from my friends,” she says. She and her best friend, who was Catholic, traded holidays at each other’s homes. Cantor may have been one of only two Jewish kids at her elementary school, but religion was not an issue she struggled with — unlike her character, Margot, who tries to submerge her Judaism, yet hides Shabbat candles under the kitchen counter and never accepts her pal’s offers of half a ham sandwich.
The official publication date for “Margot” is Sept. 3. Cantor will hold a reading and book signing on Sunday, Sept. 29 at 2 p.m. in the library at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. Copies of “Margot” will be available for purchase. For more information, visit her website at www.jilliancantor.com.