Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Review: Next to Love by Ellen Feldman

There are obvious casualties during war but there are also casualities that are harder to see, quiet casualties that should be attributed to war that are just as damaging and terrible as the physical wounds. This damage is widespread: children who will never know their father, parents who can't tolerate the sight of those who came back when their sons didn't, widows who can't face their grief as well as those who can't escape it, the tormented but returned men who wake screaming in the night, and the men who cannot build a family because they cannot inflict their broken selves or a society that condones war on children or on the woman for whom they long. War, even a "just" war like World War II extracts a terrible toll. Ellen Feldman's Next to Love weaves a tale from World War II to the start of Vietnam, centered on Millie, Grace, and Babe, women in the first flush of youth, coming of age as the world across the ocean from them is rent apart by atrocities and horror and the repercussions change the world everywhere.

Rather than a war novel complete with adreneline and grit and graphic scenes, Next to Love focuses on the people left behind when the men marched off to war. Safe back on the US homefront, friends Millie, Grace, and Babe's lives are dictated by the war. Opening as the men are preparing to leave, the naive and pure love between each of the husbands and wives shines brightly. But they are not leaving a perfect world no matter how idyllic it seems on the surface. Class prejudice, sexual assault, an under-evaluation of women, and more mar, but do not rend, the fabric of their comfortable lives. Once the husbands have left for war, lovely letters fly back and forth, proclaiming their love and looking to the future but also tracking changes in personality and perspective, giving subtle hints that nothing will ever be the same. And then the worst thing that can happen does and the three women are touched by what their love and fear could not prevent. And the aftermath of the war is hard and painful. But scars start to heal and the changed world and the people in it continue forward, sleepwalking at first until finally coming back to a muted sort of life. But Millie and Grace and Babe are changed forever, holding their secrets and their heartaches close to themselves, not even sharing them with each other, maintaining their untarnished facade through the next almost twenty years.

This is a heartwrenching portrait of the cost of war not only on those men who experienced it firsthand but also the families they left behind. Feldman's portrayal of the homefront and the odd suspended way that life exists during war is masterful and the way in which she has captured the post-war years and the altered expectations of her characters is illuminatingly realistic. The three friends are very different, in personality and in their manner of coping, and yet they are all sympathetic and the reader can't help but bleed for them as their lives unfold in ways that they never expected. Feldman draws a veiled happiness in those characters who know that great love can be wrenched from you in the blink of an eye, reminding the reader that some scars never heal entirely. A poignant and engrossing read, the book lives up to the quote from whence its title comes: "War...next to love, has most captured the world's imagination." (Eric Partridge, 1914) Feldman has indeed captured the reader's imagination with this paean to a lost time, to lost men, and to lost dreams.

For more information about Ellen Feldman and the book visit her webpage.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. Great review! Sounds like you loved this one as much as I did. I linked to your review on War Through the Generations.

  2. See, I know I'm going to like this one. Look forward to reading it. Lovely review!

  3. I loved her last novel (Scottsboro) and am really looking forward to this one. I'm glad you liked it so much!

  4. I had the chance to meet the author at BEA and was so excited to bring home this book. I COULD NOT put it down once I started it. So glad to see that you enjoyed it as well!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.


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