My Dear I Wanted to Tell You
By Louisa Young
HarperCollins - Historical Fiction/WWI
London, April 1916
Riley Purefoy was walking across Kensington Gardens in the sun, coming up from Victoria station, going home. He hadn't been in London for two years. It seemed very peculiar to him. There were no shells going off. No one was shooting. No gas-gong. No sergeants shouting. Firm clean ground underfoot. No corpses, no wounds, no huddled smoking men, no sweet stink of blood, no star shells waving beautifully through the sky. It was quiet. There were women. He was clean and dry in the flea-free uniform he had had pressed and steamed at the hotel in Dover. God, how shamelessly he appreciated the advantages of being an officer. It was worth all the little sneers in the mess, the sideways glances from aetiolated toff twats, the dumb attempts at mockery from chinless boys whose pubescent moustaches and public-school slang did not, it turned out, make them natural leaders of men. He fully intended to buy himself some decent-quality puttees, now that he was allowed such freedoms, and to have done for ever with the annoying little thin ones.
--p. 92 of My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, Advance Reader Copy (some changes may have been made to the final print version)
I love several sentences in the opening pages of this book, so I'm going to mix them in with my own synopsis. Anything in quotes is writing by someone at HarperCollins. "The lives of two very different couples are irrevocably intertwined and forever changed in this stunning World War I epic of love and war."
Well stated. Riley Purefoy is from Paddington, a working-class part of London. Nadine Waveney is the daughter of a well-known orchestral conductor, a wealthy family into whose home he's allowed for visits as a friend of young Nadine after an accident in the park. But, as budding artists Riley and Nadine grow up, their class differences become a barrier to their growing affection, just as WWI is breaking out.
After a drunken evening leads to an incident that confuses and angers Riley, he impulsively signs up to serve in the army till the war's end. A year of service seems far too long. Little does he know how long WWI will rage and how it will change his life. The HarperCollins description: "In a fit of fury and boyish pride, Riley enlists in the army and finds himself involved in the transformative nightmare of the twentieth century." What a great way to describe the first World War.
Peter Locke is older, married to a beautiful woman, living a peaceful life. He could easily avoid the service but he doesn't feel right doing so. Because of his class, he is made an officer. Julia worries that she may have done something to drive him away and finds that she's not up to working in a munitions factory or nursing the injured. All she's good at is being pretty and keeping house. When Peter's cousin Rose joins the nursing corps, Julia is left at home with her fears while Peter is facing the kind of horror she can never even begin to understand.
As Riley and Peter fight for their lives, the reader is given a realistically harsh view of life as a soldier during WWI. When Riley suffers a disastrous, deforming injury and Peter finds himself sinking into the bottle to cope with loss, both must find a way to summon inner resources.
"Moving among Ypres, London, and Paris, this emotionally rich and evocative novel is both a powerful exploration of the lasting effects of war on those who fight--and those who don't--and a poignant testament to the power of enduring love."
What I loved about My Dear I Wanted to Tell You:
There is so much to love about My Dear I Wanted to Tell You: The depth of description, the language, the characterization, the meaning and depth of the story, the themes of undying love and how terribly unimportant looks are if one is still living and breathing. Riley and Peter are both really likable, wonderful characters in very different ways. Riley is unexpectedly heroic, witty and intelligent. Peter has a huge heart and a love of classical music and writing. He doesn't act posh or superior but he's gratified when he meets someone who can relate to the things he truly loves. Rose and Nadine are both strong and determined, truly amazing women and fantastic examples of how so many women courageously stepped forward and willingly faced the horrors of war. Julia is one of only a few characters you really want to smack. The dialogue is perfect, in my humble opinion.
Here's one of my favorite little passages, Riley's response when Nadine asks him the meaning of the archduke's assassination:
'A Serbian shot the Austrian archduke so the Austrians want to bash the Serbians but the Russians have to protect the Serbians so the Germans have to bash France so they won't help the Russians against the Austrians and once they've bashed France we're next so we have to stop them in Belgium,' said Riley, who read Sir Alfred's paper in the evening.
'Oh,' she said. 'What does that mean?'
'There's going to be a war, apparently.'
'Oh,' she said.
Well, it would be over by the time they were old enough to go to Amsterdam, where he would put his hand on her waist again, and she would laugh and sing but not run away downstairs.
pp. 20-21, ARC of My Dear I Wanted to Tell You
What I disliked about My Dear I Wanted to Tell You:
I thought the ending was a little rushed, especially given the detail in the rest of the book. When I closed the book, I recall thinking something to the effect that I was willing to overlook the rushed ending because I was so completely immersed in the story and loved it so much. I felt especially invested in Riley's life.
The bottom line:
Apart from the rushed ending, I absolutely loved My Dear I Wanted to Tell You. It's well-written, realistic, sometimes charming, often gritty. It can be gruesome in the way only a book about WWI can be, with its gas injuries and rot and horrors. The characters can be thoughtful at one time, clueless and harsh at another. In the end, it offers the one thing I find most important in a book about a time of tragedy: a light at the end of the tunnel. I always felt there were plenty of indications that there was hope, even when it appeared that Riley's situation was beyond horrifying. And it is, in the end, an uplifting story of undying love and hope. Highly recommended, but be aware that the ending is not fully wrapped up. Peter's story particularly feels incomplete.
Seems like a good time for a photo of sheep, doesn't it?
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