Review: Next to Love

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Next to LoveNext to Love by Ellen Feldman
Published by Spiegel & Grau on July 26, 2011
Genres: Historical, Romance
Pages: 304
Format: eARC
Source: NetGalley

For fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, The Postmistress, and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a story of love, war, loss, and the scars they leave set during the years of World War II and its aftermath.

Set in a small town in Massachusetts, Next to Love follows three childhood friends, Babe, Millie, and Grace, whose lives are unmoored when their men are called to duty. And yet the changes that are thrust upon them move them in directions they never dreamed possible—while their husbands and boyfriends are enduring their own transformations. In the decades that follow, the three friends 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 feminism, the Civil Rights movement, and technological innovations present new possibilities—and uncertainties. And 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.

Beautifully crafted and unforgettable, Next to Love depicts the enduring power of love and friendship, and illuminates a transformational moment in American history.

First Sentence: “In the year and a half Babe Huggins has worked for Western Union, she has been late only once before.”

Next to Love is much larger in scope than I anticipated, again because I tend to avoid reading blurbs in full, since they occasionally have spoilers. Anyway, I expected this to be a novel about WWII, and certainly that’s a big chunk of it, but, even more, this is a story about war and its effect on families, especially women.

The novel tells the story of three different women, friends, Babe, Grace and Millie. All three get married before their husbands ship off to fight in Europe. These women are all different in their situations, their motivations and their expectations. Two of them do not get their husbands back; one does. One can recover from her husband’s loss; one cannot. Even the woman who got her husband back discovered that just because he returned, it does not mean he is the same man that you married years before.

The perspective of these women waiting at home is entirely engrossing to me. They get jobs, do their part in the war effort, knowing, whether they will it or not, that they will have to give up their new found independence when the men come home. The whole concept of war brides, of all of the marriages that take place as men are about to set out for war, is entirely absurd to me. I mean, I get the desire for closeness and comfort, but the men are going to come back so completely different, and, in most cases, the courtship is so rushed they hardly knew one another in the first place.

Once the war ends, Feldman treats us to a view of post-war America, incorporating the fight for civil rights and the effects of WWII upon the next generation. The women’s kids are now old enough to be dating and getting married and holding down jobs, and they are so completely messed up. The loss of their fathers or the mother’s reaction to his loss is something that affects them permanently, or so it seems.

Next to Love is not a happy story. Actually, it left me rather emotionally ravaged at several points. Both of my favorite characters are raped (one instance might not be, but it was definitely in the date rape family). Even the most solid relationships have serious issues that never really get resolved. This is not a book to read when you’re hoping to be uplifted.

What I love about WWII historical fiction is how many tales there are to tell, and, many as I’ve read, I still learn something new in every book. Next to Love makes a wonderful addition to this category, especially because of its focus upon the role of women.

Favorite Quote:

“‘The official line is that, after the war, women couldn’t wait to leave the offices and assembly lines and government agencies. But the real story was that the economy couldn’t have men coming home without women going home, not unless it wanted a lot of unemployed vets. So the problem became unemployed women. “How you gonna keep us down on the farm after we’ve seen the world,”‘ she ad-libs to the old World War I tune. ‘Enter the women’s magazines, and cookbook publishers, and all these advertising agencies carrying on about the scourge of germs in the toilet bowl, and scuffs on the kitchen floor, and, my favorite, house B.O. Enter chicken hash that takes two and a half hours to prepare. I can just hear them sitting around the conference tables. “That’ll keep the gals out of trouble.”‘”

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