By the time she started work on “The Postcard,” Berest had plenty of experience with biography. After a literature degree and a stint as editor of a Paris theater’s in-house magazine, in 2008 she looked for a flexible source of income as she worked on her first novel. Together with an associate, she founded Porte-Plume, a niche press that specializes in ghostwritten family biographies and corporate books.
“I’d always been attracted to the past, and I loved this job,” Berest said. Telling the stories of strangers “taught me to write, to craft characters and through-lines,” she added. “You realize that every life is extraordinary, once you dive into it.”
After her first novel, “Her Father’s Daughter,” was published, in 2010, she wrote “Sagan, Paris 1954,” a short fictional memoir of the French author Françoise Sagan that was translated into English and published by Gallic Books. Then Berest turned to her own family history: In 2017, she and her sister Claire, also a writer, wrote a biography of the artist and critic Gabriële Buffet-Picabia, their great-grandmother, who was married to the Spanish painter Francis Picabia. Myriam, Berest’s grandmother, had married their son, Vincente, and survived the war with help from the Picabia clan.
Berest’s family history was so complex and layered that during a bout of depression in her 20s she turned to therapy through genogram, a form of treatment based on the analysis of a person’s family tree. “The idea that we inherit invisible bonds really helped me,” she said. “It means that even people who were murdered pass things on to their children, to their grandchildren.”
It took longer for Berest to reckon with her Jewish roots. Her family had distanced itself from religion; she had never attended service at a synagogue when she started the investigation that led to “The Postcard.”