Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Next to Love by Ellen Feldman

About the Book 

  The blurb from www.ellenfeldman.com

When their men go off to war, Babe, Millie, and Grace, three childhood friends in Massachusetts,  live on letters, and in dread of telegrams that can bring only bad news.  But as the war drags on, and when  peace breaks out, they experience changes that move them in directions they never dreamed possible.  The women 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 women’s rights, the Civil Rights movement, and technological innovations present new possibilities and uncertainties.

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.

A story of war, loss, and the scars they leave, Next To Love depicts the enduring power of love and friendship, and illuminates a transformational moment in American history.


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Review

Next to Lovecovers the lives and times of three women whose sweethearts and husbands join the armed forces when America enters the war (World War II).

Feldman writes about a period of time from the point of view of each character, which takes some getting used to (you have to remember what was happening at each stage of the previous character’s story so you can relate the events to the current character) but does help to sustain interest – just as you get tired of one character’s story, you move on to the next.

Unfortunately, this narrative tool also creates some distance between the main characters: although the blurb mentions that this is a tale of ‘the enduring power of love and friendship’, do not expect dramatic scenes of women crying on each other’s shoulders, sharing secrets and talking frankly and at length about their emotions. The bond among these women seems more circumstantial than relational – they happen to be in the same small town at the same time. As one reviewer noted: ‘I found myself wondering why these women were friends at all!’ For me, the story was more about the experiences and reflections of individuals than about friendship.

Of all the themes covered in the novel, the most prominent for me was the way women were viewed, treated and expected to behave before during and after the war, and how this affected their relationships with one another. Even the strongest, most outspoken character keeps secrets from her friends for fear of being judged or misunderstood. 

The narrative seems to lose focus in the decades after the war, perhaps because there was too much time to cover in a limited number of pages. Some of the children get a look-in with chapters and sub-plots of their own but these don’t link well to the main story or characters –a pity because the main characters and large emotional themes lose depth and momentum as a result.

That said, the novel is engaging and I was impressed with the way Feldman captured the prevailing attitudes, beliefs and social norms of the time and place. I can’t say I become emotionally attached to the characters but I did finish the book feeling grateful to the women who fought, in big and small ways, for the privileges and freedom that I enjoy.


An enjoyable way to get through a packet or two of biscuits.


Review by Melissa Davidson
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About the Author




Ellen Feldman, a 2009 Guggenheim fellow, is the author of Next to Love, Scottsboro, The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, and Lucy. She writes both fiction and social history, and has published numerous book reviews.


Ellen has lectured extensively around the country and in Germany and England.  She enjoys talking to book groups in person, on the phone, or via the web.

Ellen grew up in northern New Jersey and attended Bryn Mawr College, from which she holds a B.A. and an M.A. in modern history. After further graduate studies at Columbia University, she worked for a New York publishing house.


Ellen lives in New York City and East Hampton, New York, with her husband and their Cairn terrier named Lucy. She is currently at work on The Unwitting, a novel, set against the cultural cold war, about a marriage and a country betrayed.



Other books:

Lucy

The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank

Scottsboro






Don't forget to let us know what you think of the review or anything bookish!



2 comments:

Sverige said...

This book essentially follows the lives of the three friends, Babe, Millie, and Grace, and their families over the next twenty years. Some are more resilient than the others, but none of them can escape the impact of the war. Even for those who made it back home from the war, the horrors of war relentlessly reach out and force them to a place no one can share with them. Despite their attempts to return to normalcy, getting remarried and raising their kids, ultimately they find that their friendships, their shared sacrifices, are what truly matter.

WWII and its aftermath was also a time when social certainties were undermined especially in terms of racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination and prejudices. How can a man be asked to lay his life on the line on the battle front, yet be treated as a second class citizen at home? No longer did ethnic slurs seem harmless in light of the horrific actions of the Germans. The notion that a married woman should give up her job to a returning veteran was accepted unquestionably. It is Babe, the girl from below Sixth Street, the dividing line of respectability, who, over time, takes an active role in these issues and somewhat opens their eyes.

It's a Book Thing said...

Sverige, thank you for the comment. I am so glad that you liked the book. I hope you loved it as much as we did, the poignancy of it and the pure voice of Ellen Feldman.

Hope you keep reading!

K

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