Monday, October 16, 2017

Review: Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb

I used to write and receive a lot of letters. I am sad to say that I have let that go by the wayside for the most part, only writing a Christmas letter anymore. Early on in my letter writing career though, I used to keep every letter I ever received. I think I had some sense that if any of my long distance friends became famous, it would be good to have their words for posterity. Yes, I was a weird kid, honestly thinking about this before I even hit double digits! So far none of the friends I spent years writing to have become famous though, which is probably a good thing since their letters have long since found their way to the recycle bin. When you move a million times, unfortunately there's just no good justification for holding onto all of these sentimental things. It actually does make me a little sad thinking about all those lost words sent specifically to me though. Although epistolary novels aren't written to me specifically, I do still love reading through the letters in them and appreciating the idea of all those words tied up in ribbon for posterity so I was delighted to read Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb's new WWI novel, Last Christmas in Paris.

Opening in 1968 with an ill and elderly Tom Harding making plans to go to Paris for his last Christmas where he plans to open one last letter, the bulk of the novel is a collection of letters and telegrams from WWI arranged, with one notable exception, in chronological order. When WWI is declared, Evie Elliott promises to write to her beloved older brother Will and his best friend, also a friend of hers, Tom Harding. Tom writes back consistently while Will is a less reliable pen pal. The 1914 letters are buoyant and certain of a quick finish to the war with Evie reminding Tom that the two of them, Will, and Evie's close friend Alice will reunite in Paris for Christmas. As the war continues on, the letters take a darker turn, showing the melancholy and despair that crept in but also showing as Evie and Tom opened up their very souls to each other. Evie not only reminds Tom of the good about the home front, but she also details the frustrations of not being able to do anything substantial (she's an appalling knitter) and the way that small but important opportunities start to open up to the women left behind in order to free more men to fight. Tom's letters tell of his anguish at losing his men and his friends as well as some of the truths that the government is suppressing in order to keep support and morale high at home. Other letters, beyond Evie and Tom's, add substantially to the plot as well. Evie writes to her friend Alice, a woman who enlists as an ambulance driver and nurse near the front, adding to Evie's feeling of being trapped and useless at her family's home but offering another perspective of "the war to end all wars."  Tom's father's accountant, who is trying to help Tom keep the family newspaper, The London Daily Times, afloat while Tom is mired in mud at the front and Harding Sr. is ill writes to him about various issues with war time reporting, conflicts with Tom's cousin over the running of the paper, and his father's decline.   More letters, to or from others, are sprinkled throughout the novel as well. 

The epistolary nature of the novel makes for a limited view and few side plots but the letters outside of the bounds of Evie and Tom's correspondence allow the reader to see beyond their own cautious, carefully considered words to each other and see them falling in love through words even if they remain uncertain of each others' depth of feeling. The early letters are naive and hopeful while the later letters show the progress of the war in their aching and uncertainty, freighted with so much that cannot be said. The novel is emotionally full despite the restraint in the letters themselves. Students of history will anticipate some of the events and will cringe as they read certain place names in Evie's letters, making the tale both personal and global. The novel shows the importance and power of words and represents the "un-silencing" of women at home through Evie's newspaper column. It touches on the emotional cost of war, for soldiers and civilians, beyond the obvious loss through death. Jumping back to 1968 and Tom's need to be in Paris at Christmas to read the last letter following each succeeding year of war time letters reminds the reader that life, full of all its attendant love and sorrow, has gone on after the atrocities that played out in France, not once but twice. Evie and Tom are characters with whom the reader will find it easy to become invested and the history is well researched and included organically. Frustratingly, Tom's rancor and lack of trust towards his cousin John is mentioned obliquely many times but the history of these feelings is never quite revealed, a newer incident being the stand-in for why he's not all he appears. And a final surprise toward the end of the novel isn't really much of a surprise for astute readers. The novel is well-written and engaging and will definitely suit epistolary novel fans, those who enjoy reading about WWI, and general historical fiction buffs.

For more information about Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb and the book, check out Hazel's website or Heather's website, like Hazel or Heather on Facebook or follow Hazel or Heather on Twitter. Check out the book's Goodreads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the Harper Collins for sending me a copy of this book to review.

1 comment:

  1. Epistolary novels always make me nostalgic for the lost era of letter writing. I was never particularly good at it, but I always loved seeing my grandma's handwriting on a postcard addressed to me.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!

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