Simple Pleasures Book Review:
Next to Love by Ellen Feldman
When I first read the synopsis for Ellen Feldman’s novel Next to Love, I will admit to having a personal interest in the subject matter and perspective. In the book, Feldman chronicles the lives of three girlhood friends who come of age at the beginning of World War II. They are all beginning their lives, along with the men they love when the history changing events of Pearl Harbor occurred and thrust our country into a war we were valiantly trying to ignore. The individual paths of these three women through the early days of war and beyond merge and diverge in some truly compelling ways and stands as a great literary metaphor for a country that was on the brink of stunning changes itself.
My personal interest in the book was two-fold. First of all, my parents were the same age as Babe, Millie and Grace were when they began their lives together with their men. It was not a period they spoke about a lot and while my father didn’t serve in the military, his brother did and my father worked in the Navy yard in San Diego repairing the ships that came into port. So, while my parents were not as directly involved in the war as some, it did have a great impact of them.
The other reason the novel intrigued me was Feldman’s focus on the hard transition both the men and women faced when the war ended and the world was ‘normal’ again. In an era that has often been romanticized as the having the last war of clear purpose and a time that gave us the “greatest generation” , the grittier, ugly ravages of war have sometimes been swept away.
While we are given perspectives into the lives of all three women, it is Babe that is the most dominant voice in Next to Love. Perhaps it is because Babe is the most introspective or the least traditional among this group of friends, but her voice is ultimately one of a true survivor. She survives because she can adapt to a world and a life turned upside down. Possibly this is because Babe, who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, has spent a lifetime adapting to life’s harsher circumstances. Or maybe it’s just because she is made of sterner stuff. While her friends, Millie and Grace are both wonderfully well- developed characters, it is the story of Babe and her marriage to Claude that is riveting focus of this novel.
Feldman’s treatment of Claude’s return home after the war is one of the most poignant and realistic views I have ever read in a book set in this era. Claude is the only one of the group of three friends that went off to war to come back alive. However, only Babe can see that while Claude came back, his physical injuries were not the only ones he received. In those days they called it “shell-shock”, now we refer to it as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Regardless of the label, the effects on those who serve in time of war are tragic and even now go largely unnoticed and/or untreated. That Feldman shows Claude’s long process of acclimation and healing in a realistic and honest way does a service to those who suffered silently for years.
Next to Love grabs hold of the reader in its first pages and continues to hold you tight with its honesty and poignancy. This rich story of a circle of friends who must cope with life, love, war , grief and survival could be set against any time in history, but the fact that it is set in this moment in time makes it all the more compelling. It is, quite simply, a rich and wonderful read.
Review by Brenda Seward
Next to Love by Ellen Feldman will be released in late July 2011 by Random House