Title: The Soldier’s Wife
Author: Margaret Leroy
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from Library Thing Early Reviewers
First line: “Once upon a time there were twelve princesses…”
While her husband is in France fighting, Vivienne de la Mare is taking care of her mother-in-law and two daughters at her home on the island of Guernsey. She knows that sacrifices will have to be made, that life will be different, but she has no idea of the ways she personally will change and be tested. When German soldiers move into the house next door, Vivienne sees the enemy in a new light – finds that maybe not all German soldiers are Nazi monsters, that maybe they are simply men fighting for their country, just like her husband. As Vivienne is drawn into a relationship with one of the German soldiers, she also begins to see the grim realities of war, the Polish prisoners being forced to work as slave labor, and comes face to face with the question of her own responsibility to those in need.
Margaret Leroy is a beautiful writer. Her descriptions of the island of Guernsey have me wanting to book the next flight there, move into a cottage, and plant a garden. She was able to engage the senses with her details of food and sights and sounds. I definitely will look for more of her historical fiction, but in spite of these positives, this wasn’t a book that wowed me.
First of all, I had trouble with two of the characters. Vivienne’s oldest daughter Blanche starts the book as a typical teenage girl. She’s upset that they didn’t leave the island and go to London, where she envisions glamorous city life. She reads Vogue magazine. She attends a party where girls flirt with the occupying German soldiers. And then, seemingly all of a sudden, she is piously religious, talking about “God’s will” and how God sustains one in a time of war. I don’t have any problem with a character of faith, as you know, but this rapid change just didn’t seem realistic to me. It took me out of the story and made me think about the author and the writing process, and that doesn’t make for an engrossing reading experience.
Vivienne, the main character, was a passive character. Until the last quarter of the book, she seemed to spend a lot of time simply reacting and letting life happen. I understand that part of this was the author’s intention, to show how she changed during the course of the war, but it is incredibly difficult to make your reader care about a passive character. I was especially horrified by some of the parenting decisions she made – instances where she was pretty sure her daughters were making poor decisions or doing something wrong or even dangerous, and yet she did nothing.
The other issue I had was some of the phrases the author chose to use. The main character spoke a few times of “telling her daughter off.” I’m not sure if that phrase was around during World War II – I’ve certainly never seen it used in any other WW II novels I’ve read – but even if it was, it sounds like such a modern expression that it ripped me right out of the world of the novel. It was especially jarring because of how beautifully the book was written otherwise.
While the author’s exquisite word craft and the last quarter of the story made me like this book, they weren’t enough to make me love it.