Next to Love
The very thought of covering several decades in a single novel is a prospect that would challenge most authors. Placing those several decades in the intense period between World War II and the war in Vietnam is even more of a daunting proposition. But Ellen Feldman, who's proved her historical novel chops in several previous works, shows readers that she's more than up to the task in NEXT TO LOVE, a surprisingly intimate novel about the countless ways in which war changes lives.
"...a surprisingly intimate novel about the countless ways in which war changes lives."
At the center of the book are three friends in a small Massachusetts town. Grace is a young wife and new mother when the war breaks out. Her wealthy in-laws offer her incomparable levels of support, but all the money in the world can't help shield against the tragedy of war. Millie, the bombshell of their tiny town, is pregnant when her husband Pete leaves for the front. And Babe, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, follows her beloved boyfriend to training camp for a last-minute wedding --- and even this journey is fraught with complications and tragedies.
The defining moment of the book --- a devastating scene in which the owner of the local hardware store is charged with helping deliver death notices to unsuspecting wives, mothers and sweethearts --- is based on an actual incident from the Second World War, in which 19 young men from a Virginia town of 3,000 inhabitants were killed during the invasion of Normandy. In that instant, Millie and Grace's lives change forever, as they hold unwanted documents in their hands. Meanwhile, Babe --- who actually works at the Western Union telegraph office that received all those fateful telegrams --- finds herself the object of both jealousy and bitterness. Her husband is safe after all.
When Claude does return home, however, it's clear that he isn't really safe at all, and neither is their marriage. Haunted by things he's seen, Claude is hardly the charming boy he was before the war. As for Grace and Millie, they're stuck with their own demons, not to mention --- as years pass and these still-young women face a lifetime alone --- with the tricky question of whether to marry again. The choices each of them makes --- choices that in some cases would never even have been available to them before the war --- provide intimate glimpses into their lives and the times in which they live. As the acute pain of World War II begins to fade and Vietnam looms, it's interesting to consider not only how far Millie, Grace and Babe have come, but also how this future war will affect the next generation, poised for their own stories of heartbreak and change.
Babe is certainly at the heart of the story, but all three women's journeys offer moments of surprise and insight. Feldman's storytelling technique --- giving readers the characters' overlapping stories over the course of two to three years at a time --- is a clever way to both develop character and explore personal and cultural change during turbulent times.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 26, 2011