Thursday, May 17, 2012

280 (2012 #25). Next to Love

by Ellen Feldman

"War...next to love, has most captured the world's imagination." This quote, by Eric Partridge in 1914, is one of four about war that open this book, and is the source of its title. Most reviewers describe this book as being historical fiction, and/or a romance, but to me, it was mostly about war:  its effects on combatants and their families, and the subsidiary effects on culture that wartime changes helped to bring about.

This book is rather ambitious.  It's set in a period spanning over 20 years, from 1941 through 1964, and touches on all the major wars, issues, and movements of that period, including racial and religious prejudice, the sexual revolution and feminism, post-traumatic stress disorder (even though it wasn't called that then), rape, and grief, to name a few.

The book focuses on three main characters, friends Babe, Grace, and Millie, and is told mostly from their (third-person, present-tense) points of view.  The viewpoints of their spouses, families, and children also play a part.  Babe is the strongest character, partly because of the prologue, which takes place on July 17, 1944, (not too long after D-Day) when she is working in the local telegraph office when 16 telegrams arrive, informing neighbors in her small Massachusetts town of the deaths of sons, fathers, and husbands - including (we learn later) those of her friends, Millie and Grace.  This incident is based on the real-life Bedford Boys, which author Ellen Feldman credits as inspiration in her acknowledgements at the end of the book.

The structure of the book is a bit unusual, and can be hard to follow if you don't pay attention to chapter headings.  After the prologue, the book is divided into six sections, each covering a period of years (1941-1944, 1945, 1946-1951, 1952, 1954-1957, and 1962-1964).  Within each section, there is a chapter for each of the three main characters, with subheadings of dates, months, or seasons.  This is important, because sometimes the same incident is retold from another viewpoint.

While the book has perhaps tried to cover too wide a range of  issues and therefore been too shallow with some of them, its does delve deeply into a few more narrow topics.  Feldman is quite good at portraying the nuances of love and marriage, and the lingering after-effects of war on participants and their families.

I'd read a few reviews before starting this book, and was prepared for the viewpoint changes and repetition of scenes.  With that advance warning, I would recommend this book to others.  I'm not too fond of the cover of the paperback edition I received (pictured above), preferring instead the two below, which I feel reflect the eras and/or the subject matter better.

© Amanda Pape - 2012

[I received an advance reader copy of a paperback of this book, which was originally published in July 2011, from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, in exchange for an honest review.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]

1 comment:

  1. The most impressive thing about this book for me was the amount of detail about the day to day lives of these women. The very beginning drew me in with the description of Babe's job at Western Union working on telegrams and what these telegram would come to mean during the war. There is also lots of descriptions of what was expected of women at that time, how they were to behave, and what they could and could not do. The hardest part to read was the night before the men left for their training. It made me think of all the women that really went through it all those years ago.

    I great book for me is one that I find myself thinking about long after I am finished reading it. This is one of those books. I found myself thinking about these women, the men they loved, the children they had, the things they went through. I of course always knew what a hard time this must have been for so many people, but this book really made me feel it through these women's lives.

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