Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Victory Book Club: Next to Love by Ellen Feldman, 2011

I once read that people’s perception of how World War II transition to the 1950s is romanticized. People see the photo of the sailor kissing a nurse on VJ Day and then think of bright colored ads showing housewives pulling meatloaf out of the oven as her husband drives up to their new suburban home in his sparkling automobile. The recovery time between World War II and the consumer friendly 1950s is often forgotten along with the time it took towns, marriages and hearts to recover.

Next to Love is a novel about that recovery, about wounds that heal and scars that don’t. In South Downs, 91 miles East of Boston, Babe, Grace and Millie share a friendship since kindergarten. They are in their early 20s in 1941, in love and looking forward to the rest of their lives. None of them imagine how the war will affect their lives just three years later. The lives they thought they would live with their husbands exist in their memories as they come back with missing fingers and post traumatic stress, or not at all.

Babe is the most headstrong and aware of the three girls. She grew up on the wrong side of Sixth Street, but married on the right side. During the war she ran the Western Union telegraph office until the men, including her husband Claude, came home to take back their jobs. She was the only one of her friends who applied for men’s jobs, and knew people wondered “who does she think she is” for it. Being a housewife bores Babe, but she is lucky that Claude supports her work with African American civil rights and then women’s rights in the early sixties.

Grace is the friend who loses the most from the war. Losing Charlie hits her hard. Having to still live up to being his wife for her banker father-in-law is even harder. She has their daughter Amy, a house and enough money to not have to worry about working. Her therapist even recommends a cure to help deal with Charlie’s death - a new husband.

Millie doesn’t want to mourn Pete’s death like Grace, out in the open. Packing all of Pete’s belongings in a box, she gets herself a job at Diamond’s department store and gets herself a new husband. The marriage doesn’t start out as love, but eventually gets there, though her new husband Al is always contemplating their mixed marriage.

In 1964, after the war, after their scars have begun to fade, Babe, Grace and Millie know that next to love is their friendship.

I enjoyed reading Next to Love. The perspective of marriage and friendship after the war is different and refreshing. I like that Feldman emphasizes the healing and recovery time people experienced post war. The discussion of civil rights, mixed marriages and discrimination with the GI Bill are situational and not overdone. I’m looking forward to reading Feldman’s novel Lucy next.

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