Book Review: Lovely War by Julie Berry

“He closed his eyes tightly. ‘What I’ve done, and what I’ve seen, will always be with me.’

This was the last time she would make this plea. ‘Let me, too, always be with you.'”

This book is one of those that you come across every once in a while that feels almost impossible to review. It’s somehow both what you expected, and not what you expected at all. It wasn’t good enough to be one you’ll keep thinking about for days after finishing, but it’s certainly good enough to recommend to other readers. And boy, does it have some absolutely stunning one-liners, including the quote I opened this review with.

But let’s not dwell on the rating just yet. Hopefully I’ll know what it is by the time I’m finished writing this review.

One thing that Lovely War, Julie Berry’s most recent novel, absolutely deserves praise for its its delicious premise, particularly the framing device it uses for story-telling. The two love stories we are presented with throughout the majority of the novel, which takes place near the end of World War I, are told to us by four of the major figures from Greek mythology: Aphrodite, the goddess of love, Ares, the god of war, Apollo, the god of music, and Hades, the god of death. At the opening of the novel, we are shown Aphrodite and Ares in 1942 — in the midst of World War II — caught in a tryst by Hephaestus, Aphrodite’s husband, who is the god of forges, and very insecure about his lack of beauty compared to the other gods. Hephaestus, heartbroken that his wife has been unfaithful, arranges a trial in an attempt to discover if Aphrodite ever loved him. As a defense, she convinces him to allow her to tell two love stories, affectionately crafted by her own self, in order to demonstrate that she knows more about matters of the heart than the rest of them.

When it comes down to it, the premise of the trial feels a bit shaky, and easy to poke holes in. However, it allows for the stories we are about to hear to be presented in a wonderfully unique way: while most of the stories are told through the perspective of love, from Aphrodite herself, she calls the other gods as witnesses to fill in the gaps. Ares steps in to explain the happenings of battle, Hades, to account for the lives lost, and Apollo shares powerful moments of music, as three out of the four protagonists are talented musicians.

Each chapter features a heading detailing which god is speaking. This convention becomes particularly powerful when the reader sees the name of Hades at the top of the page, as it creates suspense and fear for the characters. Which of them will he claim? Death is a matter of how and when, not if, when Hades takes his turn to speak.

However, as I ventured through the first half or so of the novel, I found that the framing device which made it so fantastically unique occasionally became its fatal flaw when it came to connecting with our four main characters.

As Aphrodite and her fellow gods tell the story of the main characters — James and Hazel, and Aubrey and Colette — the distance between mortal and immortal is easily felt. Aphrodite particularly is a very present narrator, and reminders of her voice can often make it feel like the main characters are being kept at arm’s length from the reader. We run into the problem of “telling” instead of “showing” because that is literally what is happening: Aphrodite is narrating the thread of each story, and we are not being shown what happens. To me, this causes a disconnect between myself as a reader and the emotions of the characters in question. We are told that a character feels fear, grief, or joy, but we don’t always quite feel that alongside them, as we might have with a more invisible third person omniscient narration, or perhaps alternating first person perspectives. This disconnect feels less prominent toward the latter half of the novel, as we’ve had a few hundred pages to get to know the characters a little more, but it still remains, as if it’s a membrane of some sort, letting us see and hear the characters’ experiences, but never quite feeling what they’re feeling by proxy as a reader.

All things considered, however, I did still enjoy the stories we were presented with. Usually, if I don’t know how I feel about a book, a surefire sign that deep down, I don’t enjoy it, is if I take days and days and possibly even weeks to finish it. I finished this book in 3-4 sittings, in about as many days. I did care about the characters we were presented with, and wanted to find out what happened to them, even if I think one pair had a narrative advantage over the other, and an imbalance felt present amongst the four characters.

Aphrodite’s story begins with Hazel, a young pianist aspiring to go to a music conservatory in London, and James, a building apprentice who dreams of being a compassionately-minded architect. The two of them meet at a dance hall just days before James is scheduled to leave for army training, and it’s pretty much love at first sight. While I certainly was rooting for them throughout the novel, the aspect of insta-love pretty significantly impacted my investment in their relationship for the first half, or possibly even two-thirds of the novel. There wasn’t very much build-up; they just very quickly came together, and quite frankly, we never really see them spend much time together. In fact, though they’re said to be “in love” with each other, for the majority of the book, they only have maybe a week total of face-to-face interaction, and, quite frankly, that’s just not enough for me. Anyone who knows my taste in fiction knows that I am, perhaps above all else, a huge fan of the “slow burn” trope in relationships. I want to see the development, feel the growing attachment, understand the deepening connection. The lack of this in the first two-thirds of the novel is probably the biggest reason why Lovely War felt a bit disappointing for me as a read.

I’m not sure if the author intended it this way or not, but the second romantic pairing in the novel almost felt like the “B pairing” of the story. The two characters involved — Aubrey, a black Jazz pianist from Harlem, and Colette, an orphaned singer from a small village in Belgium — aren’t introduced until much later in the novel. By the time we meet them, Hazel and James have an advantage, as we’ve already been following their story for a good 50 pages or so. Consequently, the two are even harder to invest in when it comes to their love story; whereas James and Hazel only spent a week together in person, Colette and Aubrey only interacted maybe three times at most before their relationship is largely neglected for a considerable portion of the novel. I was rooting for them, of course, but only in a passive, lazy way. I ultimately cared more about them simply surviving, and thought little of their romance. It is a story of war, after all.

War, which brings me to my next point: the setting of this novel was perhaps one of the biggest pulls for me. For some reason, there is an absolute abundance of WWII historical fiction on the shelves right now (and all of the covers look the same, to boot, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms that I don’t want to dissect right now). Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy WWII fiction quite a bit (read: I’ll eat that shit up). However, I’ve always been fascinated by WWI, and always been disappointed at how much harder it is to find historical fiction set during that time period. I’m not sure why that is, exactly. Could it be that, even though it was only two decades or so prior to WWII, the first world war took place in a society that looked far more different than our own in present day, and is therefore more difficult to write? Could it be a result of American authors taking little interest in the period, as the Americans themselves were hardly in that particular war? I’m not sure, but as someone who’s always loved the era of Titanic, women’s suffrage, and the first few seasons of Downton Abbey, I’ve always been intrigued by that period in history, and I’m always seeking out more fiction about it. When I realized that Lovely War was largely set during that time, of course I jumped at the opportunity, and I thank Julie Berry for investing in the research. This novel has recently become quite popular with the book-related social media crowd, and I would love to see that popularity translate into more popular historical fiction about The Great War.

Overall, would I recommend this book to other readers? Absolutely, I would. The premise was fresh and interesting, and the story highlights an era of history that is currently a bit underrepresented in fiction, in my opinion. However, the issues I mentioned above, such as distance from the character’s emotions, and the trope of “insta-love” are what keeps this from being a new favorite of mine. I had a good time reading it, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been hoping for more. I’m a glutton for romance, and suffering for romance, but I want to feel it in my bones, and not merely read about it from a narrator that’s keeping it at arm’s length. On a more technical level, however, I will fully commit to praise for Berry’s use of language. There were some absolutely gorgeous, scrumptious little metaphors and descriptive bits, and in that sense, I feel Berry spoiled the reader. I sometimes feel that lately, there is a lack of truly luscious, beautiful prose: it always seems to fall into the category of either over-the-top, “purple” prose (a la The Night Circus), or prose that is quite plain, straightforward, and doesn’t take the time to describe anything with much detail or care. In this respect, Lovely War was quite the triumph. It was certainly enough to make me feel willing to give another one of Berry’s works a shot, if the opportunity ever arises.

Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

***

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