"Next to Love," is a new release, a historical novel set in Massachusetts during World War II, the early 1940s, and for 20 years thereafter, from Ellen Feldman. Her last published historical novel, Scottsboro: A Novel
, dealing with the famous racially charged Southern case of the 1930s, was, upon its hardcover publication in 2008, named one of the five best novels of the year by the "Richmond Times-Dispatch," and long listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2009. The author has previously also published the novels Lucy: A President, a Marriage, a Love Affair
and The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank: A Novel
Three women, Babe, Grace and Millie have been best friends since their first day at kindergarten in South Downs, their small Massachusetts home town. They are different people, of course, with their own secrets and lies, but they've played together, grow up together, and share each other's secrets. And when America finds itself entering World War Two, after the Japanese bombing of its ships at Pearl Harbor, the girls begin a new phase of their lives together, as each quickly marries her own first true love. Life is, of course, difficult for these newly-minted married women, with their husbands away at war. But one morning in 1944, no fewer than sixteen telegrams arrive at the town's Western Union office, being manned by Babe, in the absence of the town's men. These telegrams bear news of the most universally dreaded kind from the War Department; the kind of news that must inevitably wreck the life of each recipient.
After the war, each woman must struggle to rebuild her life. She must face not only the challenges close to home - the brutal after effects of war, the question of remarriage, of how to tell a child about its absent father - but also the wider issues of a country in flux - sexism, racism, anti-Semitism.
Many readers will undoubtedly consider NEXT TO LOVE chick lit, and I suppose it is. Still, Feldman is a gifted writer, and she does well at giving us the flora, fauna, weather and social mores of a small New England town in its times. Her narrative, dialog, and descriptive writing are fine. However, I personally would have preferred but one protagonist, rather than this three-headed approach. As it happens, I've also read and reviewed SCOTTSBORO. I liked that previous book greatly, but found that later in that novel, as the 1930s wore on and World War II began to cast its shadow forward, Feldman seemed to lose interest in both her female protagonists: they each appeared to be simply sending sound bites from whatever front they were on. Now, once again, I find the World War II section that opens the book at hand richly drawn and interesting, but as the author's tale grinds on until 1964, once again the book thins and begins to read more like shallow sound bites simply ripped from the headlines.
Feldman is a regular contributor to the "Huffington Post." She evidently did a ton of research for SCOTTSBORO, and, again, for NEXT TO LOVE, but perhaps she should focus more closely on what interests her most. I think there's a lot more to be said about Rosie the Riveter, and Feldman may be one of the girls to say it.