Sunday, June 5, 2011

My Dear I Wanted To Tell You

The Publisher of  My Dear I Wanted To Tell You describes the novel as, "a poignant testament to the power of enduring love". ~~sigh~~ That's the kind of vapid phrase that can make me put down a book immediately. I didn't though. The cover was too pretty and the description also had these tidbits: "Rose joins the nursing corps to work with a pioneering plastic surgeon treating wounded" and "necessarily imperfect rehabilitation".

"Necessarily Imperfect Rehabilitation". Those are not three words that I could ever have the imagination to string together. They sound so sadly Frankenstein-ish, so like an understated military evaluation of a crippling medical evaluation. Perfectly in keeping with a novel set during World War I like My Dear I Wanted To Tell You by Louisa Young.

In Young's novel the war to end all wars gets a masculine and feminine point of view. Three of the main characters are the girls they left behind: Julia, Rose and Nadine. Upper crust Julia spends the War trying to stay the exact same beautiful woman her husband married while spinster cousin Rose and young Nadine join the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). VAD was made up of mostly untrained middle class women who became hospital staff, cooks and ambulance drivers during the War. They served in Great Britain and at the front. Along with the independence and training VAD provided her, Rose finds a purpose for her life. Nadine's service gives her the opportunity to grow up exposed to a much wider world than she would ever have known if not for the War.

The characters that make up the masculine side of the novel are Peter and Riley. Peter is Julia's husband. He has turned to alcohol to get through the War and become a sullen caricature of the gentleman he was. Riley joins up in a rash romantic gesture and ends up in Peter's unit. Riley is an innocent from the wrong side of the tracks in love since childhood with the above his station Nadine. There is more than a touch of Atonement in their relationship.

The title, My Dear I Wanted To Tell You, is the greeting from real postcards used during the War. These postcards were handed out to wounded men as a way for them to help prepare their families for the brisk and brutal military notification of their injuries that would follow. One of the differences between WWI and the previous conflicts were the numbers of soldiers who survived. The most interesting part of the novel concerns the advancements in reconstructive and plastic surgery at the time. These pioneering medical treatments meant that more men were returning home with physical scars and loss of limb to test their survival on a whole new front.

Although My Dear I Wanted To Tell You is more romance that clear eyed study of war at home and on the front, Young does a good job conveying the horrors all five characters face. These are people completely unprepared for everything the War will bring them in contact with and Young's treatment of their successes and failures has a truth based in strong research. That is nothing new in the author's use of war to emphasize the social and scientific changes of the period but that does not diminish her compelling storytelling. For all the similarities to Atonement, Birdsong, Regeneration and Brideshead Revisited, My Dear I Wanted To Tell You is still an enjoyable read.

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