Thinking about Louisa Young's superlative WWI novel, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, two things strike me about the book and the story. First the story--a novel set during WWI needn't have battlefield scenes in order for it to be harrowing. There are a number of things that Young does in this story to make it both touching and painful and she does them so eloquently. The other--whoever designed the book chose a perfect cover illustration. It might look a little odd if you know nothing about the story other than it's about a war. It even verges on appearing to be a romance, and while it is about relationships and how the bitterest of times can drive a vicious wedge between families and lovers, there is so much more at play here.
There are aspects of this story that feel quite typical. After reading so many WWI novels (yet still barely touching the tip of the iceberg on the literature now out there), you begin to see many common themes running through them. Similar storylines and tragedies even similar solutions. But Young takes her story in slightly different directions, or maybe she just knows how to transform the typical into something feels fresh and new. And her prose is really, really good.
In My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, four lives intersect in compelling ways. The aristocratic and the working class. The officer and the enlisted man. The Bohemian and the Society girl. This is, I suppose, the typical. This is mostly Riley Purefoy's story, the son of working class parents who falls in by chance with the very Bohemian Waveney family. It all starts with a snowball--flung in excitement but causing this smaller boy to gasp after it smacks him on the face. A face that a decade later will be mangled by war. The Waveney children take him home dry him out and fill him with hot chocolate. His bright eyes and curly hair catch the eye of the children's tutor, a painter of some renown, who asks to paint him. Not being bashful Riley returns and a friendship begins with the family and the artist, particularly with young Nadine Waveney.
Of course you know what society ca. 1915 is like. How can someone of Riley's class possibly think of a romantic liaison with someone posh like Nadine. The thing is, Nadine's family may be posh but they are Bohemian posh. Her mother is unsurprisingly conservative and conventional, but there are sparks that cannot be ignored. When war breaks out and Nadine's family has all but made the two cut ties, he storms off. What else can he do, and in anger and frustration tells the Waveneys and Sir Alfred, who has become his mentor as well as teacher, that maybe he'll perish and they won't need to worry about Riley seducing Nadine in any case.
Riley begins as an enlisted man but seems to have a knack at army life--courage under fire and discipline and a rapport with the other men--all the qualities that catch the eyes of those up above. He is soon, thanks to so many officers getting killed off, moving up the ranks. He finds common ground and begins a friendship with Peter Locke, his superior by rank and class, but not in other ways. Maybe it's thanks to his years as part of the Waveney clan, but Riley knows how to interact with high and low. He has a natural curiosity and ability to learn things easily and a keen intellect.
Whereas Riley remains faithful to Nadine with whom he has begun a relationship despite the misgivings of her family (and mostly unbeknownst to them), Peter Locke can't seem to reconcile his life in France with his home life. He feels adrift and cut off from his beautiful wife. He has affairs, doesn't answer her letters. Julia wants to be helpful to the war effort but she's mostly useless (but never in a smug way). Only a pretty face and too elegant to do anything really important. She's spent her life being a pretty face and is treated as someone without a whit ability. Her entire self-image is wrapped up in how the world sees her, or rather how she thinks the world sees her. She wants only to be the perfect wife and the perfect mother and anything less is failure.
How fitting then is it, that when Riley is wounded and must contend with having his face partially reconstructed that his efforts are juxtaposed with those of Julia's as she tries to stave off the effects of time and despair on her face. And how Young treats this situation is the not so typical. Riley is subsumed with anger and anguish and self-loathing, at least initially, doing everything he can to keep the doctor's and their 'helpful' surgeries at bay. And Julia tries anything and everything to make sure she does not change and keeps her beauty for her returning husband. So curious and interesting that a war story, so ugly in itself, concerns itself with things of beauty.
This is such a surprising novel. I had heard it was good, but it was good in ways I didn't expect. So much going on under the surface. And as I mentioned it was harrowing in ways I didn't expect either. There are scenes of war, but the scenes most uncomfortable for me were those of what Riley had to endure as he 'recovered' from the facial wounds he received. No one in this story is perfect, and they are sometimes frustrating (but only in the most human of ways), but they were always likable--even with their flaws, their worries and fears and shortcomings. They felt very flesh and blood realistic.
As for the cover illustration. My first impression was--oh, a war story, a love story. But now after having lived (in my mind anyway) with these characters and seen their flaws and misapprehensions, their fears and even in some cases their triumphs, it really seems a fitting choice. That dark sepia is just the right tone for the dark days of war, and the turned back, the woman's hands--you cannot see their faces. Riley is perfect from almost every angle, save for part of his face. He's loved by a woman who would give up almost anything to be with him. And just the same with Julia and Peter who have left so many things unsaid and think at cross purposes. Julia is always thought of and treated as someone superficial, and she relies on her face, her looks to get by and be loved and fears that without her youth and beauty she will lose everything. So fitting then for the lover's faces to be concealed and for the two to be wholly consumed by each other.
This is a story that is quite nicely done. Definitely some harrowing moments, but everything fit together in just the right way. Young continues the story in The Heroes' Welcome (not yet published in the US), which I'm afraid I had to have. My copy is winging its way to me now and soon I hope to find out what happens to Riley and Nadine, Peter and Julia.