Author: Ellen Feldman
Genre: Fiction (Historical / American / WWII / 1950s /1960s)
Publisher/Publication Date: Spiegel & Grau (7/26/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Liked to nearly loved.
Did I finish?: Yes -- in about six hours.
One-sentence summary: World War II and the aftermath is felt for decades in the lives of three women from a small Massachusetts town.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: Yes -- it's a little pat WWII-ish and I wish it might have shown a telegram (referencing one of Babe's jobs), but the pictures and letters convey some of the story's bittersweet arc about communication and memories.
I'm reminded of...: Penelope Lively, Cynthia Ozick, Valerie Martin
First line: In the year and a half Babe Huggins has worked for Western Union, she has been late only once.
Did... I literally lose myself in this book?: YES. I woke up Sunday and picked this up to thumb through while waiting for my coffee to finish brewing; when I next looked up, three hours had passed, the coffee was cold, and I was nearly finished. It was that good.
Does... this novel have a very British feel to it?: YES. Something about the narrative style felt very reminiscent of an British novel -- so much so that I looked up Feldman's bio twice to see if she was British or had British roots.
Do... I suspect this novel is set in a fictional Concord?: YES. Based only on the mention of a 'pond' the town swims in, and the proximity of Springfield and Boston, I've decided the novel is set there. That's likely wrong, but it helped my mental movie as I read!
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Absolutely borrow.
Why did I get this book?: I've been dying to read Feldman's novel Scottsboro which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2009, so when this came up as an option to review, I jumped on it.
Review: The title, which I initially found odd (I was reminded a bit of the cheesy Ewan MacGregor flick Down with Love), is from a marvelous quote which encapsulates one of the themes of the novel: "War...next to love, has most captured the world's imagination." (Eric Partridge, 1914).
Spanning 1941 through 1964, this engrossing book follows three women from a small Massachusetts town: Babe, Grace, and Millie. Much of the novel is about the impact of World War II on their lives in this town -- the ones who died in the war and the ones who came back -- but it is also more than a war novel. In the decades that follow the war, as the country tries to move on, Babe, Grace, and Millie struggle with the balance of remembering and forgetting, obeying the roles expected of a woman, and living for themselves and living for their families.
In Feldman's writing style, I found a kind of distance between myself and the characters, but it seemed to echo the distance between the characters themselves. Babe, Grace, and Millie were best friends since childhood, yet they kept so much of their heartache and pain private from their spouses, friends, and children. That narrative distance, however, wasn't an obstacle in caring about the three heroines; rather, it gave me a knot in my throat and a desire to hug each one of them -- and an awareness that were I in a room with them, I probably wouldn't have the courage to do so. The hesitation and closeting of pain, confusion, and frustration was beautifully articulated and moving; I never felt the story turned toward overly melodramatic or cheesy. At the novel's close, I felt a mix of hope and sorrow -- and I wished that the novel were twice its size so I could follow Babe, Grace, and Millie for another twenty years.
*** *** ***
GIVEAWAY! I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Next to Love to one lucky reader! To enter, leave a comment with your email address. Open to US/CA readers, ends 7/1.