“War…next to love, has most captured the world’s imagination.” -Eric Partridge, 1914
In 1941, Babe, Millie, and Grace send their men off to war, trying to maintain brave facades, wanting to display confidence to a world who has lost its confidence in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Grace’s husband, a reporter, leaves his wife, young daughter, and devoted father for the front. Millie’s new husbandÂ (and former playboy) writes her enthusiastic letters, full of bravado and swagger. Babe sees Claude off to training, no ring on her finger, only to receive a letter telling her he can’t leave without having her as his wife. But this is war, and not everyone comes home, and those who do are far different men from the ones who waved goodbye.
Next to Love tells the story you never see in World War II-era movies. In those films, couples kiss and confetti falls. There are joyful reunions. There are unhappy tears, of course, but they are quickly dried up. You never see the shell-shocked WWII vet, sitting and staring off into space, reliving the war or the man who hits the floor when a fire alarm sounds. You don’t hear the stories of devastated widows, the ones who shut down and those who hide the grief. Feldman hands you these women’s grief and asks why not.
It’s also a story of female friendship in the days before Sex and the City, when women keep their private lives private even from their best friends, unable to speak their minds fully. Their anger and hurt and frustration is tucked away, and they have internal monologues, berating themselves, trying to be better, trying not to be their mothers, trying to be the happy faces of people who weren’t at war. Then there are the women whose husbands are back but not whole. Women who are nurses and bedfellows but no longer wives and lovers.
Then there are the men – men so unused to niceties and everyday life – who are expected to snap to and fall back in line, going back to work and trying to be the husbands and fathers they’re expected to be. The women whose jobs are suddenly taken from them, who had a sense of duty and purpose are now handed cookbooks with recipes that take hours to produce.Â At one point, Babe, one of the main characters, stands outside the Western Union where she worked during the war, holding her breath as government-sanctioned news came in:
She has no desire to go back to those days. Only a crazy woman would want to go back to a life of constant fear, aching longing, and unbearable loneliness. Only a fool would want to go back to that office reeking of death and grief. But it was her own front line in the war, and for three years she womaned it with a singleness of purpose. That is what she misses. Being useful. Having a cause….She has become a war lover.
And by the point in the book where she utters her confession, you understand. These women didn’t love the war, but they loved the moment in time where they were proud of their country, scared and nervous and lonely as they were, they sent their men off with pride. But the reality of loss and the pain of an altogether different loneliness strikes each of them in heartbreaking ways.
Next to LoveÂ is an unapologetically realistic look at life after war, and it’s lovingly and beautifully done. I didn’t love these people, but I also haven’t been to war and haven’t experienced the lives they have. They’re bitter and unhappy and unhappy that they’re bitter, yet I felt I had a slightly better understanding of the post-war generation after reading this book than perhaps anything I’ve read to date.
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