Thursday, June 21, 2012

War Brides

"Five young women, five wartime love stories, an adventure plot, and eventually, revenge."

I really loved this book, right up until the last few chapters when it descended rapidly into an eye-rollingly bad denouement. Oh Helen Bryan! Why did you do that to us?

First and foremost, Bryan rendered her setting beautifully. Every location, from Louisiana to London to Crowmarsh Priors had the feel of a real place, a real time. None of those flowery descriptions that weigh down a narrative and bore readers, and yet Bryan managed to transport us all back to the war torn countryside of England and make us feel right at home.

As a look into what life would have been like for a woman living in WWII England, this book was fantastic. Yes, we all know about the air raid sirens and the city children shipped off to live with strangers outside of London. But what about living without access to real meat for years at a time? What about "mend and make-do" until you're wearing a dress made of old linens? What about doing your part for the war effort by learning to milk cows? What about living with the constant fear that at some point, really any day now, the Germans will invade your homeland? What about being a foreign Jew in England, barely escaping the Nazis only to meet with mistrust and even internment in your new home? Bryan brings these questions up without any preaching about any of it. And it isn't a depressing novel either. Instead it's a story of survival, of bucking up under pressure, of living through these hard things and still finding joy, and even love, in one's life.

Each of the five protagonists is an interesting, three-dimensional girl with her own personality and quirks. Doubly fascinating is the way the author makes you sympathize with whichever character's viewpoint you are currently seeing, even when they do not like each other. Alice, for example, when the story is told through her eyes, is a wonderful girl. She's practical and kind and truly heartbroken over her failed engagement. And yet when you see her through Francis's eyes Alice is bossy, gruff, and a little annoying. The same can be said for each of the characters, you feel for Evangaline as she flees the states and you fall in love right along side her when she finally gets to know her husband. But when you see her through Alice's eyes you loath her. And it's this nuance, this refusal to let everyone be shiny and good and perfect, that I loved most about the novel. The five women are friends, of a sort, but this is no fairytale rosebud girls club. They do not all get along all the time. They do not even all really like each other. And yet, somehow, they need each other.

The book needed a better editor after the frequent typos and someone should really tell Bryan that having your characters sum up scenes for the audience by giving long speeches to each other about things both characters already know is just bad form. When you do that, the readers stop hearing the characters and start hearing the author. Yes, I know you are trying to give me important information in a clever way, but this is not how it's done. People to not stand around recapping each other about things they both know happened.

And then, the end. Oh bother. So much potential! Such a letdown! If there is one thing this author has not yet caught onto, it is ambiguity. Not all the loose ends should be tied up in a neat little package in the last three chapters! This is a novel about war and loss, and you know, sometimes people did go MIA. Some traitors were never caught, some spies never seen again. Having the now octogenarian women get back together and wrap up the puzzle in the course of an afternoon over sandwiches was not only poorly done, it was unnecessary. It made each of their stories seem a little less poignant as well. They went from being stories of survival and loss and strength to the Agatha Christie knitting group. I appreciate the desire to let them get even at someone or something for the losses they sustained during the war, but actually that "getting even" was cheap and dirty compared to the lives of dignity and humor that lead up to it.

Still, I'm glad I read it. I choose to ignore the last chapters and remember instead the feeling of being there with them as they struggled to find purpose and hope in a dark and frightening time. Pity the author did not trust her own story enough to let it be just that without a neat little mystery-solve at the end.

Rating: Two cheery "made-do and mend" pamphlets.

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