My Dear I Wanted to Tell You
Louisa Young's ambitious new novel takes its title from a form letter sent home to British soldiers' families to alert them to their injuries during battle. It starts off quite simply, "My dear_____, I want to tell you, before my telegram arrives, that I was admitted to ________ on _________ with a slight/serious wound in my ________." The aim is to soften the blow of hearing their beloved son or husband or father was injured on a distant battlefield somewhere in Europe.
This framework sets up the love story between working-class romantic Riley Purefoy and posh Nadine Waveney, who meet quite by accident one morning in Kensington Gardens in 1907. Riley comes from modest English stock, but through his employ with a noted painter, Sir Alfred, a friend and colleague of the Waveneys, he finds himself falling in love with the fair Nadine over the next few years. Feeling that he will never be quite good enough for her or her family, and after a drunken sexual indiscretion, Riley joins up with the British Army at the outset of World War I.
While stationed in France, Riley meets his commanding officer, Peter Locke, who takes the eager Riley under his protective wing. Locke has left behind a beautiful young wife, Julia, at home in Kent, and he wonders, after so much time away and the horrible things he's witnessed in battle, if his marriage can survive it all. Julia, a beautiful and sheltered lass, is keeping the home fires burning for Peter with the company of his cousin, Rose, a no-nonsense, pragmatic woman who has secretly loved Peter for years. She has resigned herself to never marrying and puts her energies into being useful to the war effort. She joins the nursing corps and works with a surgeon who is perfecting ways to help the injured soldiers as they come back from the war. After Locke spends a brief furlough at home with his family, Julia becomes pregnant and feels somewhat adrift while waiting for her husband to return. She's not as serious as Rose, and now with an infant, she waits and worries as she tries to determine her place in this complicated new world order.
During his time in the army, Riley and Nadine correspond religiously, and each professes their love for one another, much to the disapproval of Nadine's mother. Despite her family's artistic leanings, Mrs. Waveney is adamant that her daughter forget Riley and his youthful ambitions, and make a more serious match with someone of their own stature. But Riley is made of tougher stuff and is tested time and again in battle, which results in Locke promoting him to Captain. After a horrific battle where they essentially guided their men straight into enemy fire, both Riley and Locke are injured and sent to a military hospital. A good portion of their unit perished, and each man has to deal with the guilt that comes with their command.
With echoes of THE ENGLISH PATIENT, ATONEMENT and a touch of Ford Maddox Ford's THE GOOD SOLDIER, Louisa Young's adult debut novel is haunting and mesmerizing. (Young is the co-author of the bestselling Lionboy trilogy for children). Not only a thorough examination of love and war, the issue of class, so ever-present in much British literature, is also deliberated here. The dark and gritty battle scenes contrasted with the pining love letters sent from the front lines of battle blend perfectly together to give an accurate and honest portrayal of life during wartime --- not only for the men in the trenches, but also for their loved ones at home.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on June 6, 2011
My Dear I Wanted to Tell You
- Publication Date: June 26, 2012
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Harper Perennial
- ISBN-10: 0061997153
- ISBN-13: 9780061997150