Monday, June 27, 2011

The Soldier's Wife by Margeret Leroy Review

The Soldier's WifeThe Soldier's Wife by Margaret Leroy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Goodreads: 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?"

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.

My take: I had no idea there were these little cow islands between the British Isles and the continent until I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society a few years ago. Now I just want to go visit them. But definitely not during a war. Even more definitely not during a time they are occupied by another country working on a little genocide. Just to summarize, there are a few little islands nobody really cared much about that happened to be strategically located between the European continent and the British Isles. The Nazis invaded and built an airfield. This made it particularly convenient for bombing London.

The residents of these islands left, for the most part. There were, however, a large portion who didn't believe the war would touch them. The Nazis bombed the crud out of the island to soften them up then peacefully docked their ships, landed their planes and walked right into town, found residences empty, unattended automobiles, etc. and requisitioned them. This is where we find ourselves with Vivienne, a thirty-something mother of two daughters, one a teenager and one a precocious grade schooler. She is also caring for her mother-in-law who seems to be suffering from dementia. Meanwhile, her husband, Eugene, is off fighting the war against the Germans.

Enter the Germans who move in right next door. The rank and file German soldiers, including those with higher rank but not SS, are generally affable to the residents of Guernsey, although there is always the renegade soldier who forgets to be polite and shoots a civilian. Vivienne meets Gunther, a gentle man in his forties. She is lonely and recounts her orphan - like childhood, her hurried wedding to Eugene that she never loved, his probable affair and her continued loneliness. Suddenly, it seems, Vivienne and Gunther are having an affair.

The most difficult conflict Vivienne finds herself with for the bulk of the book is not a moral dilemma of adultery but whether or not she should be, literally, sleeping with the enemy. Vivienne and Gunther find companionship, solace, friendship, and even love through one another yet Vivienne continues her struggles. The real question then is this; Can a person maintain their high moral ground when engaging in behavior that does not agree with their beliefs? Germany is at war with the world (except Italy). The German army is trying to kill Vivienne's husband, in a sense. Yet Vivienne has feelings for a member of the German army.

Meanwhile, other information seeps into Vivienne's consciousness. Of course, there is always a threat of being sent to a prison camp on the mainland or possibly shot, but as a whole, the Germans are fair occupiers. They eat most of the food but it is much more apparent these are men who don't believe in the war as much as those who are actively fighting on the fronts. Yet there are other soldiers referred to as "OT." These may be SS men but they guard the P.O.W.s on the island. It is quickly discovered that there are slave laborers who are being treated as subhumans. It is difficult for the Guernsey islanders to separate the two kinds of soldiers.

The prisoners of war are being worked to death, beat to death, starved to death, or simply give up which is the same as the above. They are skeletons and only shadows of who they once were. They come from Poland and Russia and are being used to fortify the island (as if anybody cares about the islands). In order to not have to feed the prisoners, a blind eye is often turned when they escape at night to forage for food. This often means stealing or going through rubbish. This is where Vivienne crosses paths with a prisoner and learns details she wishes she did not.

It is a beautifully written book that I highly recommend. It is not cut of the same cloth as the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society which is raw but also quirky and, at times, humorous. The Soldier's Wife is much more of an internal struggle which eventually finds its way to her external world, although it is not a story all told in Vivienne's head. Things happen all the time. Vivienne is constantly trying to balance herself precariously on the highwire of mothering her children, caring for her ailing mother-in-law (knowing these three people are completely dependent upon her), being a good neighbor to Angie, a friend who is falling apart, loving her German lover without revealing secrets she may know yet trying to understand the current world where she is existing.

My only dissatisfaction is that I wanted to know Gunther better. Why did she love him? I know he offered her perceived safety and may have interceded on her behalf at times, but I never really knew him. I would also have liked to know more clearly why he and Max ended where they did. Blanche is also remarkably silent except to argue with her sister, Millie, who I absolutely adored, as I did Simon. Blanche would have also been an interesting character to further explore as she is at the cusp of womanhood during the occupation.

On the other hand, I am reasonably certain the author did not reveal as much about Gunther as she could have on purpose. In the end, the questions Vivienne had to ask herself and the conflict she eventually needed resolution would have been the same.

Wonderful book. Recommended for a book club.

Swearing is mild but I do recall one "f" word.
Sex is moderate but not described in detail.
Violence is obviously present as there is a war going on. The book is not riddled with violence but is revealed to Vivienne, shaking her world.


Alexis @ Reflections of a Bookaholic said...

I didn't read your entire review because I got so excited at the synopsis. I love WWII fiction so I'm definitely adding this one to my list. Thanks for the introduction and I will be sure to return when I've read the book.

Melissa Mc (Gerbera Daisy Diaries) said...

One I would really like to read this summer.

Bonnie said...

I have been reading a lot of books set in WWII lately and this one simply must go on my TBR list! Excellent review!
Bonnie @ HandsAndHome