I think Rhys Bowen is a top notch historical fiction writer and I love Her Royal Spyness, and really liked the Molly Murphy mysteries I’ve read. So I was surprised to find myself bored enough with this book that I paused it to go read something else. It just felt plodding and predictable. Now, the book did end up taking a turn midway through and coming up with a slightly unpredictable and interesting turn of events, but overall it still felt long and a little tiresome. Maybe standalone books are just not her thing.
I absolutely loved this! It’s a prequel to Lilac Girls, which I never did actually read. And having read little about this it wasn’t until I read the Author’s Note at the end that I realized that this was not only a prequel about the generation before the (apparently?) main character of Lilac Girls, but also that these were real people! I thought it was just general historical fiction and had no idea so much of it (people, their homes, their businesses) was actually real.
The setting is World War I and it takes place in America and Russia, as well as Paris. Basically all the Russian history was fascinating and unknown to me. I seem to know much less about WWI than WWII. I loved all the details about the peasants and the aristocrats and the scenery itself (wolves and woods) was fascinating.
The main characters are the two close friends Sofya (Russian) and Eliza (American). Each desperately hopes the other is safe and the p.o.v. switches back and forth between them, as well as another girl, Varinka. Varinka is a Russian peasant who definitely has an atrocious, truly awful, life. And yet, I disliked her. Much of the Russian conflict had me thinking that both the peasants and the tsar’s regime were acting like savage animals and one was not better than the other. There was some fairly horrifying stuff in here. Of course I loved the resiliency and bravery of Sofya and Eliza as each dealt with the impact of the war in different ways-Sofya was more a matter of actual survival, while Eliza found a way to channel her own sorrows into helping others
A fascinating and riveting read.
I already thought Hilary McKay was a marvelous underappreciated writer, and now I think even more so! (Is she really underappreciated? Maybe not, based on awards, but it seems like no one else I know reads her books. And they should.) This will immediately draw some comparison to The War that Saved My Life. It is some solid hard core historical fiction. I am pretty curious the targeted age reader because while it has a youngish looking cover and was in the children’s section I’m not sure the 5th graders I know would stick with this. In part because she doesn’t flinch from the realities of WWI trench warfare, and in part because these characters are followed from childhood to adulthood. Reading as an adult, though, I found this very appealing and loved discovering that I would be reading about not just a few summers in childhood, but these characters’ nearly full lives.
Clarry and her brother Peter, their cousin Rupert, their friends Simon and Vanessa. Rupert, Peter, and Simon all go to a boarding school, while Clarry struggles against and upbringing in which she’s flat out told that as a girl she needs to know nothing. Fortunately Clarry finds ways around that and loving support from those outside the family.
As a keen reader of WWI and WWII fiction I assumed from chapter one that surely one of these beloved characters would die-the only question being which one? I almost didn’t want to get too fond of the characters, but of course I ended up loving them all. Except for Clarry’s horrible hideous cold father.
I loved watching the changing relationships and growing up and just thought this was an all around terrific book. Honestly I felt like it read almost like an adult WWI book.
As always with a WWI book I ended up feeling sad at the end because all I could think was “you lived, but any babies you have will grow up just in time for WWII and you’ll have to live it all over again.”