September 20, 2011


This novel skips between pre-World War I France, World War I France, and the late 1970s in England. Please bear with me as I try to keep it all straight.

Stephen Wraysford is a young Englishman in France learning about how the French manufacture cloth. He falls in love with Isabelle, the wife of the factory owner he is staying with, and they have an affair that culminates in the two of them running off together. Once on their own Isabelle discovers she’s pregnant and, for reasons that are completely inexplicable, leaves Stephen without telling him and without leaving a note.

We jump ahead to the war. Stephen has joined up on the English side and is an officer in the army. A lot of horribly depressing war scenes ensue. He almost dies several times. They participate in a battle that inflicts horrendous causalities on the English side (a real battle as it turns out). Stephen loses all faith in humanity. He returns to Amiens, where he met Isabelle, while on leave and runs into Isabelle’s sister Jeanne. Through Jeanne he discovers that Isabelle is living in Amiens again, and they meet briefly. Isabelle tells him that she has fallen in love with a German officer, but fails to mention the five-year-old daughter they have together.

Stephen lets Isabelle go, but begins to correspond with Jeanne. The war continues. Stephen goes into one of the underground tunnels that were dug under the no man’s land between the trenches. Once down there, the Germans set off two explosions that trap him underground. He and one other man are the only survivors. The other man, named Jack, is a tunneler who is badly wounded. After several days underground they manage to set off a forgotten New Zealand explosive, which blows into the German tunnels. A contingent of German officers goes to check it out and eventually find Stephen. Sadly, the other man dies before they are rescued. By the time they get back to the surface, the war has ended. The Germans let Stephen go and that’s that.

Interspersed with this narrative is that of Elizabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter. She’s a thirty-something, single woman who decides she needs to investigate her roots. She discovers some of Stephen’s old notebooks (written in code) and does some research about the war. During that process she discovers that she is pregnant by her married lover. Her mother reveals that while Stephen was her grandfather, the woman Elizabeth knew as her grandmother was actually Jeanne, Isabelle’s sister. Isabelle went to Germany with her daughter to be with the German officer, but she died in the flu epidemic after the war and her daughter was sent to live with Jeanne. After the war, Stephen and Jeanne married. Elizabeth decides to raise the baby on her own and names it John after the son of Jack, the man Stephen had been trapped underground with.

Other thoughts:
  • Under the title of the book, my copy states that this is “A novel of love and war.” It’s definitely a war novel, but while there are two different love narratives, I would not categorize it as a love story. The affair between Stephen and Isabelle seems somewhat sudden and then falls apart so quickly. Just as you think that they’ll stay together, she leaves. I just found it cruel that she would leave with no note whatsoever and not tell Stephen she was pregnant when he had been nothing but good to her. Elizabeth’s love story with the married guy is just classic, “I know he’ll leave his wife!”
  • I’m really glad that I missed WWI. Really there is no good war to be a part of, but the descriptions of the trench conditions are just so horrible. The smell, the dirt, the lice—all disgusting. Plus the tactics hadn’t caught up to the technology, which resulted in so many unnecessary deaths.
  • I had no idea that tunneling was part of the war strategy. Both sides would dig tunnels out under the no man’s land toward the enemy trenches to try and place explosives and blow up the enemy. It was extremely dangerous because of the possibility of cave-ins and counter explosions.
  • I could have completely done without the Elizabeth narrative. It was so sparse that I didn’t feel there was a real connection with her character. Other than the nice cyclical moment where she names her son for the dead man’s son, there wasn’t a real connection between the two narratives. Learning about her grandfather made her feel fulfilled maybe, but didn’t seem to really impact her life in a substantial way. I’d have preferred to have just the WWI part of the book.

Next up is The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I’ve seen the movie in the last few months, so I’m looking forward to this one. It’ll probably make me cry.

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