Release Date: July 26, 2011
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Genre: Contemporary Fiction; Literary Fiction
Rating: 5.0 out of 5
Publisher's Summary: A story of love, war, loss, and the scars they leave, Next to Love follows the lives of three young women and their men during the years of World War II and its aftermath, beginning with the men going off to war and ending a generation later, when their children are on the cusp of their own adulthood.
Set in a small town in Massachusetts, the novel follows three childhood friends, Babe, Millie, and Grace, whose lives are unmoored when their men are called to duty. And yet the changes that are thrust upon them move them in directions they never dreamed possible—while their husbands and boyfriends are enduring their own transformations. In the decades that follow, the three friends lose their innocence, struggle to raise their children, and find meaning and love in unexpected places. And as they change, so does America—from a country in which people know their place in the social hierarchy to a world in which feminism, the Civil Rights movement, and technological innovations present new possibilities—and uncertainties. And yet Babe, Millie, and Grace remain bonded by their past, even as their children grow up and away and a new society rises from the ashes of the war.
My review: Historical fiction isn't a genre I read until I discovered the book blogging community and the plethora of books and subject matter available in that genre. I realized that I liked reading books having something to do with World War II. Many of the books I've read are set over-seas in Europe somewhere and focus on Hitler's reign of terror, the Nazis or the plight and rescue of Jews. In that respect, Next to Love is a very different book since it's set in America and focuses primarily on the years following WW II.
I was immediately hooked on this book once I read the premise. I knew I wanted to read Next to Love and I expected to like it but I had no idea the impact it would have on me. Ellen Feldman opened my eyes to the painful and reverberating effects of war on the families whose husbands, fathers, sons and brothers leave home to fight. Babe, Grace and Millie's lives are forever changed the day the men they love leave to fight for our country in WW II. They don't know when or if they will see them again and there's little they can do but wait, hope and pray. The impact of the war on their lives isn't over when the war comes to an end, in some ways it's just beginning. In fact, Babe, Grace and Millie experience unexpected and fundamental changes to their beliefs, ideas and life perspectives because of the war. Whether their men return or not, they are no longer young, innocent and carefree. Next to Love impressed upon me how devastating and surprising the impact of war is on those involved even tangentially. Babe, Grace and Millie must reach deep inside themselves to find reserves of strength they didn't know they had in order to cope. As the years pass, we are privileged to see how Babe, Grace and Millie build new lives for themselves and their families of which they can be proud.
Babe, Grace and Millie, close friends for years, are very different women. Babe is outspoken, intelligent, a little brash; Grace is well-mannered and quiet; and Millie is calm, upbeat and cheerful. None of them are celebrating the night before their men, Claude, Charlie and Pete respectively, leave for the war. Babe watches in the movies as newly drafted men celebrate going off to war but, secretly, she wishes Claude was one of the men turned down, deemed unable to fight. Babe sees the hypocrisy of it all: men going off to possible death with a big smile on their face, leaving behind the ones they love. They all feel the same fear and grim dismay at what's happening. But they all put on a brave face, pretending to enjoy the dinner Grace cooked for them. The women don't know when they'll see these men they love again. Ms. Feldman does an excellent job of portraying a mood of forced cheerfulness. We easily feel the women's fear, the men's unease in their stilted conversation at the dinner table marked by awkward, uncomfortably long pauses. If we didn't no better, we'd think Babe and Claude, Grace and Charlie and Pete and Millie didn't know or like each other very well.
Ms. Feldman has created three wonderfully real and flawed women in Babe, Grace and Millie. She astutely portrays how each one embodies the personality and characteristics of women from the 1940s making them recognizable to us in a myriad of ways. Grace isn't a snob but she grew up with money and is used to having it. She wants to be a wife and mother while Babe is always thinking and observing what's going on in the world around her. She's restless and not content to just stay at home, she always wants to be doing something. Millie, after losing her parents when she was little, just wants to feel safe and loved. Each woman copes in their own way, with the help of her friends and sometimes, family, during the war, and in its aftermath with the results that are handed to her. Babe, Grace and Millie watch out for each other and they are available to each other at any time, for anything. Although they are the best of friends there's a tension and distance between them born of the suffering they've each endured but not completely shared. Over the years, their closeness and the need to confide take precedence over the fear of being vulnerable. Their refreshing honesty with each other confirms their support and love for one another. Although Babe, Grace and Millie are very different from one another, they know and understand each other and their friendship easily withstands the test of time and tragedy.
I found all three women likable and, although I didn't always identify with Babe, Grace and Millie, I understood why they did the things they did. There were times when I didn't agree with their actions since they all made some questionable decisions but I still found it easy to sympathize with them. There were times I wanted to shake some sense into ach of them and say "Don't you see what you're doing to your child?!" but more often I wished I could reach out and hug them. Ms. Feldman shows us clearly how each woman agonizes over their decisions and actions about how best to care for her family. It was clear they were simply trying to do their best in unexpected, sometimes unfavorable circumstances. I don't want to give away specifics about what happens in the lives of Babe, Grace and Millie when the war ends because it's the impact and effect of the war on the rest of their lives that Ms. Feldman portrays so realistically and beautifully.
As the years pass, we watch as Babe, Grace and Millie's change and grow while continuing to cope with the hurt, loss and pain of the past, tackle the various problems families encounter and celebrate the flourishing love and friendship that also continues to be a part of their lives. The passing years are marked by changes in society and new ideas and beliefs enter into the women's lives that impact Babe in particular. Ms. Feldman effectively portrays the impact of racism, the feminist movement and other events in the lives of Babe, Grace and Maggie whose actions are always influenced in small and sometimes larger ways by their experience with WW II. As the end of the novel approaches, we see Babe shed any inhibitions she's been carrying and become the woman she's been fighting to be for most of the book. She's my favorite character in Next to Love and it was wonderful to read as she came to understand who she is and what she wanted from this life and then claim it with the support of Claude.
Ellen Feldman has written a fascinating and riveting story of how WW II impacted and changed the lives of three young woman in a small Massachusetts town. In doing so, Ms. Feldman shows us that although the physical battles may end when the war is over, it's impact and the lessons it teaches are only just beginning and will be felt into the next generation. Through three amazing women we come to understand how war touches even those people not directly involved and alters their perspective on life in good and bad ways. Next to Love made me realize the sacrifices made by families whose loved ones fight for our country and the impact that will be felt for generations to come. Ms. Feldman has written a beautiful, poignant and universal story that I highly recommend.
Ellen Feldman's website
Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review Next to Love and to Spiegel & Grau for an ARC copy of Next to Love.