Next to Love by Ellen Feldman is a gripping tale of women affected by the travesties--- on the home front and beyond--- during the years of and the years following the American involvement in the Second World War.
Babe, Grace and Millie are three very different childhood friends whose bond is sewn even tighter due to their collective experience: learning of loss, hardship and heartache when the men they love are expected to do their duty overseas. The novel weaves mainly between the three perspectives of these women; but sometimes offers a glimpse into the point of view of their husbands, boyfriends, and (very occasionally) their children.
Interspersed with letters from the front line and a pitch-perfect historical sense, readers will be easily engrossed in the wonderfully realized world of these very different women.
I was immediately captivated by the narrative structure of the book and found myself turning pages rather quickly. The details about Babe, Grace and Millie’s everyday work and home lives are told with such historical conviction you feel you are peeking through a window to observe their every- day experience.
I was most captivated by the love story between Claude and Babe. Sensitive Claude never recovers from his time in combat and Feldman’s stark portrayal of a man who has undergone the shock and treachery of the battlefield is heartbreaking. This is made even more so when coupled with a traumatic experience which befalls his wife Babe while she is still at home. The novel takes us beyond WWII and into the 1950s and 60s--- decades where America’s promise was emblemized in new housing, urban planning and differing ways of extending credit. The prosperity of these years clashes with the opening chapters of loss. One of the most effective moments of the book occurs with Grace: who refuses to watch the hands of the clock on the last day before her husband Charlie’s leave ends. The utter disparity of usual house chores cutting into the last fleeting moments they spend together will rip at the reader.
I also really enjoyed the timbre and tone of the aforementioned letters included in the novel. While some of Babe, Grace and Millie’s correspondence is featured, it is the letters of Charlie, Pete and Claude that most held my attention. The vernacular very much reflected the breezy nuances and idioms of the time period and the experience of the front is muted behind overt declarations of undying love and hope for the tenuous future.
My one complaint about the novel is its preoccupation with sex (ironic because it is a major theme and counterpart to war and the undercurrent of many actions--- Feldman explains its significance as a type of underlying civil construction and deconstruction …. ) awkwardly infusing paragraphs and sometimes jarring the flow of narrative as she outlines every single movement. At these moments, I felt like I was reading a flat out romance and not a serious literary endeavor focusing on the hardships of Americans at War. To say its gratuitous is not a stretch: its implication rather than stark descriptive realism would have been more effective and played into the other more subdued thematic strains of the novel.
Secondly, I found the multiple narratives to be slightly confusing---- but you will hit a page, mid-way through where something clicks and you can weave seamlessly from one tale into the next.
Altogether a splendid snapshot of an integral part of history. As a non-American reader, I was able to transplant the uncertainty, fear and despair into a national consciousness---where I could better understand what my grandfather ( a stretcher bearer) and my grandmother ( a war bride from Canadian-liberated Holland) underwent.
Read more about this exciting book at the TLC site as well as link to other blogs featuring the title.