Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Next to Love by Ellen Feldman

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: July 12, 2015

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.

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Into the Jaws of Death - U.S. Troops wading
through water and Nazi gunfire
Ellen Feldman's Next to Love was a recommended read. Heather, the voice behind The Maiden's Court, suggested it at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Denver and I tracked down a copy soon after returning home. I wasn't at all familiar with it, but her rending of the plot had me sold sight unseen. 

She mentioned the trials of life on the home front, but was very clear that the story focused on post-war America as well. She mentioned that one of the heroines struggled to understand her husband’s PTSD and that another was defined by her husband’s death. She went on, but my mind was already racing. I flashed on that scene in A League of Their Own, the one in the locker room where the Peaches apprehensively watch Jimmy Dugan walk the telegram down the line. The audience breathes a sigh of relief for Dottie Hinson, but what happened to Betty Horn? How did she weather the years without George? It wasn’t something I’d ever considered, but I couldn't argue the potential in the story of a war widow.  

At this point you’re probably wondering if the book lived up to Heather’s praise and/or my imaginings and I’m happy to report, it did. I think Babe, Millie and Grace make very interesting protagonists and I liked watching their lives and personalities change with each passing year. I also liked style and tone of Feldman’s writing and found it very easy to slip into the world she created within these pages. 

My only complaint is the structure of post-war chapters. I didn’t like the sudden shifts to narrators in the supporting cast. Sporadic intervals with Naomi, Claude, King, Jack, Al, Mac and Amy felt awkward in the context of the story and made it difficult to remain focused on the central trio. The erratic timeline caused further confusion and often forced me to stop and rearrange events in my head to make sense of the order in which they took place. I liked how Feldman used multiple perspectives to explore various themes, but I can'd help feeling her execution imprudent and that the latter chapters of the novel suffered as a result.

Obviously I'd have liked a stronger ending, but I can’t say I felt the time I spent with Next to Love wasted. The presentation was disappointing, but I greatly enjoyed the plot and look forward to reading Feldman again somewhere down the road. 

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“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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1 comment:

Unknown said...

I'm so glad that you enjoyed this book! I read this 2 years ago, so I just went back and looked over my review and I made similar comments about not necessarily loving the structure of the book and that I had to stop to rearrange the dates and what was happening to whom. But I really did love how she tackled many issues that aren't covered about the men retiring home and life at that time. Glad it was a successful recommendation - I always hold my breath!