The Soldier's Wife by Margaret Leroy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"The Soldier's Wife" is a fabulous novel and the most enjoyable read I've stumbled across in a while.
Guernsey is a tiny island located just off the coast of Great Britain in a tiny archipelago known as "The Channel Islands"; I had never heard of it until I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society last year.
During WWII, Guernsey was taken over by the German army. Britain was dealing with the extensive bombing of London which Churchill coined as "the Battle of Britain". Unable to cover it's many fronts, England was forced to cede Guernsey to the Germans for several years.
As the years passed, the Germans fortified the island with, ironically enough, vintage Russian guns. The Germans offered rewards to anyone who reported on citizens who spray painted the "V" sign around the island. A work camp was erected on the island and prisoners from the East (the Polish specifically) were brought there and forced into hard labour, many working to their death. Eventually the Germans ruled that all citizens who were not born on the islands would be deported to work camps in southern Germany; this was mandated by the Fuhrer himself who was upset at the German deportation from Iran.
So the history of Guernsey is rich and there is a surprisingly small amount of literature about these stories; this book is one of the few that I have been able to find.
Vivienne de La Mare is our protagonist and leads the novel with spirit and sympathy. The wife of a soldier who is fighting in Europe and the mother of two daughters, she struggles with the best way to accept the German occupation and the growth of her feelings toward a German officer.
We learn that her relationship with her husband Eugene is extensively damaged thanks to an affair he had been conducting with another woman. She longs to be with someone who can stir her deeply, but she has never had the chance to be. Suddenly life presents her with Captain Gunther Lehmann and she completely falls in love with him. They begin an illicit affair and she struggles to justify her actions to herself.
It seems like a simple romantic novel, but it is so much more. As she continue along with her relationship, she closes her eyes to the occurrences around her and shuts out the world, pretending that she and the captain are the only people who truly matter. He tells her that everything else is simply out there happening, while their moments together are what is real.
Eventually circumstances come about where she is unable to look away: she must either help a suffering prisoner from one of the camps or turn and pretend she has seen nothing. As the plots plays out, she must choose between the first man she truly loves or the right thing to do.
Even though the dialogue seemed stilted occasionally, I was able to look past that, charmed by the author's description of the setting: the flowers and the sea, the quiet and rural life on a small island. Even the day to day tasks described felt so real: making jams, picking fruit, tearing up a beautiful flower garden to grow vegetables...Leroy left nothing to the imagination.
My largest complaint about the novel was that the relationship between Lehmann and Vivienne did not appear to be based on love, but rather lust. She describes the excitement she feels on meeting him and being with him, but Leroy does not expand much on their conversations together and it seems a bit far-fetched that Vivienne is so deeply and disconsolately in love with this man. Her character of Vivienne and well rounded and explored, while Lehmann seems a bit stiff and unreal.
In the end, what this story does is ask what we will do when we see needs. Will we ignore them in an effort to protect ourselves and the ones we love? Or will we choose to reach out a hand to those around us?
4 out of 5 stars for a book that I very much enjoyed reading and devoured in two days. This is definitely a must purchase for me and I recommend it, specifically for all the ladies who like a sweet but meaningful story.
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