The Soldier’s Wife by Margaret Leroy
Fiction, Published June 28, 2011
ARC received from Hyperion Voice
Read: June 2011, 403 pp.
As World War II draws closer and closer to Guernsey, Vivienne de la Mare knows that there will be sacrifices to be made. Not just for herself, but for her two young daughters and for her mother-in-law, for whom she cares while her husband is away fighting.
What she does not expect is that she will fall in love with one of the enigmatic German soldiers who take up residence in the house next door to her home. As their relationship intensifies, so do the pressures on Vivienne. Food and resources grow scant, and the restrictions placed upon the residents of the island grow with each passing week. Though Vivienne knows the perils of her love affair with Gunther, she believes that she can keep their relationship and her family safe. But when she becomes aware of the full brutality of the Occupation, she must decide if she is willing to risk her personal happiness for the life of a stranger.
A novel full of grand passion and intensity, The Soldier’s Wife asks “What would you do for your family?” “What should you do for a stranger?” and “What would you do for love?”
First Impressions (Out of all the books I have to read, why this one?):
A few years ago I read and really enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Guernsey is a little island north of the coast of France, but is part of the UK. My favorite genre to read is historical fiction, pre-1900s, but since I loved all the people living on Guernsey island in Potato Peel Pie, I decided to give this one a try.
I really enjoyed the author’s style of writing. It was an easy and quick read, yet the lush descriptiveness made me feel like I was on the island right there with Vivianne. I’m glad the final version will have a map because I found myself googling the island to see where everything was taking place. The Soldier’s Wife is driven by the character of Vivianne, a thirty-something mother of two daughters and caretaker to her ailing mother-in-law, – her everyday life, her gardens, her trips around the island to visit friends, and even her view of the German soldiers who have taken up residence next door.
In The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, one of the main characters, Juliet, lives in London and communicates by letter to the islanders so the reader gets to see not only what is going on Guernsey, but also what is happening in London. In The Soldier’s Wife, none of the characters ever really know what is happening outside of their bubble world on the island. At the beginning of the occupation, they are allowed to use radios, but eventually these are banned, although one of Vivianne’s friends has hidden hers in a casket at the funeral home.
Vivianne has always yearned for a safe, cozy, known environment. I think that is one of the main reasons she ultimately decided not to put herself and her children on the small boat to leave the island before the German occupation. There was no news from London or anywhere, for that matter, and she did not even know if the boat would really make it across the water. All she knew was that so far the Germans hadn’t come and that maybe their little island would be overlooked. It was a desperate hope, but ultimately, Vivianne was wrong and I think she pays dearly for that decision especially with her relationship with her teen daughter Blanche. But was she really wrong to decide not to flee?
Throughout the novel, I really liked how the author uses the different fairy tale stories as well as the scenery and weather descriptions to signal foreboding and the slow, gradual accession of the German occupation. Vivianne reads fairy tales to her daughters and she even contemplates the fact that all the stories she is reading are about weary soldiers who have been gone to war for a long time and have to endure many challenges and even supernatural encounters to make it back home. I liked Vivianne and Gunther together, even if she was sleeping with the enemy! I really don’t know how they kept it a secret from the rest of her family. I never thought that Gunther would betray them and that they truly loved each other in their own ways. They both loved living in their own secret fairy tale world.
I think it is Johnny’s character that really puts the morale back into Vivianne’s step. He is forever hopeful that Britain will overtake the Germans and that the state of things will not last forever. I think many people, including Vivianne, have given into the Germans. It is a slow declination into poverty for the islanders and they often feel content and even grateful that things aren’t worse for them. For the most part, as long as they comply by a few rules, the soldiers leave them alone. It is not until the islanders start seeing the forced laborers and hear of the concentration camp, and especially for Vivianne when her daughter Millie gets directly involved, that she starts to really notice the reality of their situation and take action.
This would be a great book club book as there are many things to discuss. (Note to self: I need to start a book club so I have someone to discuss with!!) There are some great questions at the end of the book and the more I think about it, the more I love this book! It has a quietness to it that is very profound. I love the questions, too posed in the book blurb – How well do you really know someone?, What would you do for your family?, What should you do for a stranger?, and What would you do for love?
I loved fairy tales just as she does, enthralled by the transformations, the impossible quests, the gorgeous significant objects – the magic cloaks, the satin dancing shoes. And just like Millie, I’d fret about the people in the stories, their losses and reversals and all the dilemmas they faced. So sure that if I’d been in the story, it would all have been clear to me, that I’d have been wise and brave and resolute, that I’d have known what to do. (p. 4)
…where the princesses follow the pathway down to another world, a secret world of their own, a place of enchantment. (p. 5)
After tea, I read her a bedtime story that tells of a girl who married a creature as ugly as a hedgehog, and at night he took off his coat of spines and became a handsome man. (p. 94)
But however happy they were on Guernsey with their loved ones, they were obliged to return eventually to their homeland, under a contract written in blood that could not be disobeyed. Sooner or later they had to leave the people they loved and sail away. (p. 184)
I don’t like that ending. It’s sad. It’s not a good ending,” she (Millie) says.
I received a complimentary copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.