Vanderbes delivers a pretty standard war story that begins when Juliet Dufrense and her beloved brother, Tuck, are thrust into the chaos of World War II and a life of blood and violence far from the isolated town of Charlesport, South Carolina. Fresh from the first kiss with her childhood sweetheart Beau Conroy, naïve, sheltered
Juliet cannot comprehend the savagery and brutality that awaits her on the Italian
Vanderbes takes us on an unsettling exploration of identity and individuality, far from
Juliet’s small beginnings and her close relationship with vigorous, handsome Tuck (who influences so much of her young life). Like most young and excitable men of his generation, Tuck is elated at the notion of going into battle, As, however, the war effort grips Charlesport with blood drives and recruitment rallies, pregnancies and proposals (and the boys who are deemed the dreaded “4-F”),
Juliet faces the horrifying notion that Tuck’s departure will dismantle her life. Soon they will be different people, “mere strangers with only a vague shared memory of childhood.”
When Juliet’s father receives a telegram that Tuck is missing in action and presumed dead, she travels to the Italian Front to work as a nurse to try and find him. Here, in a field hospital pitched thirty miles north of Rome where the US Fifth Army is fighting the Germans,
Juliet undertakes the daily grind of disposing of severed arms and legs while the elbows and knees of wounded soldiers struggle to break free from blood-soaked blankets. Faced with a Receiving Tent in pandemonium,
Juliet finds herself unable to escape the urgent sweltering swirl of a train station that seethes with nurses and ward men, and soldiers constantly moaning and whimpering.
Propelled by the high cost of war, in these early chapters Vanderbes teaches us about the sheer magnitude of the conflict with all of its blood and bone, loss of life, and the notion that “death it seems only makes us all the hungrier to love more deeply and fully.” War casts a spell on uncertain
Juliet as madness turns to evil purpose and the age-old search for redemption plays out amid man's inhumanity to man.
Never one to be deterred from her mission, Juliet finds herself reporting to Chief Nurse Henfield, “Mother Hen,” who wields an iron fist and seems unsympathetic to
Juliet’s trying circumstances. But true to her form, Juliet presses on amid July’s unremitting heat that hammers the days into “a blinding white sameness.” Her search for some trace of her brother unfolds against the background of the capture of Pisa, where even more Allied soldiers join the division and experience the first shocks of combat. We feel
Juliet’s cold fatigue, the months away from home, and her constant worry over Tuck’s disappearance that produces a wave of longing and exhaustion and death, “a vague conceit until you felt the cold limp hand of someone you know.”
Vanderbes tries hard to pull us into Juliet’s journey by employing a simple storytelling technique that suggests her heroine’s sharp, observing mind and keen sense of courage. Finally a clue to Tuck’s whereabouts arrives in the form of Private Barnaby, who comes to the Field Hospital horrifically damaged by a self-inflicted pistol wound. This is the closest
Juliet has come so far to finding someone who might know her brother. Together with kindly Doctor Henry Willard,
Juliet attempts to unlock Barnaby’s shattered mind as he screams Tuck’s name and tells of an act of self-destruction, a tale that reflects war’s wretched madness.
The novel’s best moments are the details of Juliet’s daily life on the front lines—the daily blood and gore, and how she does her part to heal the wounded soldiers, including recounting her own dreams and nightmares. Also compelling are the majestic scenes in which
Juliet and Willard find themselves alone in the wintry mountains of Italy on a journey that will eventually come back to haunt them. The problem is that even these scenes do not make the novel a "compelling read” in the traditional sense.
Juliet’s wartime experiences, while convincing, offer us nothing new in our knowledge of the Allied war effort. Nevertheless, as Vanderbes’ tale draws to its conclusion,
Juliet shakes with inner angst on a journey that has no real resolution. In the end, this novel is most memorable for exposing the unending march of history and how women like
Juliet, with all of their fortitude and bravery, became a much-beloved symbol of a bygone era.