Lahain’s story follows the Goodson sisters, Meryl and Claire, and their cousin Nora following the death of Nora’s fiancé in France during WWI. For reasons that are not fully explained, all three girls sign up to be part of an overseas nursing unit. Meryl and Claire’s father, Dr. Goodson, is the local physician who begins to speak out against the war effort, much to his own detriment in the small town environment. After two of the girls make it to a training course in New York City, only Meryl makes it beyond to France, where she witnesses the brutal reality of the war and learns of the aftermath at home only through letters.
The author portrays a particularly complex, heated period in American history, which often pitted neighbor against neighbor. The battlefield scenes are vivid and portray the horror the wounded endured. The representations of the Swann River inhabitants are where this narrative struggles the most, however. The hometown characters of the book are sharply divided – those who support the war effort are shown as intellectually shallow, insensitive xenophobes. Even when they do something seemingly kind, there is a menacing undertone. There a reader has the quintessential villain with no redeeming qualities. (As Meryl once inwardly remarks “…Stupid men making stupid decisions…”) Those who do not support the war are shown as courageous, honest, and true, the reader’s archetypal hero. Real life is seldom so clear-cut, and it’s a shame that the townspeople weren’t given more depth and nuance to reflect the genuine turmoil of the time. It is easy to write caricatures – to make one side completely “good” and the other totally “bad” – but a more thorough look into the characters’ motivations, inner struggles, and thoughts would have given the book greater historical weight and appeal.
Meryl goes through a transformation as she witnesses loss, suffering, and fear outside the confines of her hometown. After going through such a journey, the ending is abrupt, leaving many story lines unanswered, most especially Meryl’s. The reader wonders how Meryl will choose to carry on, now that she’s witnessed all that she has. Does Meryl “begin again”, as the synopsis asks? The reader can only speculate. The book does a fine job exploring the turmoil of WWI, both at home and abroad, but a book that leaves a reader hanging when it comes to the outcome of main characters will always leave a reader disappointed.
Amazon link for the book is here.