Next to Love
Ellen Feldman
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Buy *Next to Love* by Ellen Feldman online

Next to Love
Ellen Feldman
Spiegel and Grau
320 pages
May 2012
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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While I seldom read novels about World War II, Feldman does an admirable job of blending three voices into a tale about the women left behind when their men go off to battle. Burrowing deep into the landscape of love, the author exposes the cracks in passion as her central protagonists - Grace, Millie and Babe - are forever transformed by life's experiences.

Misery cannot be “weighted on a scale.” Local businessman Sam Shaker is given the awful job of handing out the Western Union telegrams to the women as they spend a lazy summer afternoon basking by the local pond. At first Grace does not see Sam sitting in his truck - “for the space of a heartbeat she pushes the aching worry from the front of her consciousness” - but Millie remains clutching the envelope as she descends into a state of shock.

Grace foresees the depth and yawning horror as these beloved men go off on their “great adventure,” leaving their sweethearts behind. As fragile as bone china, Grace’s internal anguish is vindicated when her beloved Charlie fails to return. Neither does Millie’s husband Pete. The “eye at the center of this hurricane of dread and desperation,” Millie will always remember the man she fell in love with staring out from “candid eyes.”

The war causes a painful rift between Babe and her husband, Claude, the emotional scars deeply affecting the couple’s future. Upon Claude’s return, Babe is faced with his drinking and pain at being back in a world so far away from "dead bodies, twisted limbs, and oozing intestines."

Lacing her standard domestic melodrama with instances of great social and political insight - particularly the bourgeoning civil rights movement - Feldman ties a tale of women to the more profound landscape of the war’s aftermath. You get a sense that these women are caught up in something bigger than themselves as they buy houses, make love, argue, and raise children. Naturally, the poisonous fear of war fades and so does grief, but life goes on regardless as the women move into a new decade.

The novel builds in a series of stark set pieces: Grace, ashamed of being alone in the world without a man, screams obscenities on her front lawn; Babe’s guilt and rage, her body in spasms, the stench of the station bathroom, and a doctor who wants to lock up all army wives for endangering good American boys; Jack, Millie’s son, who at eight idolizes the father he never knew. Nothing is ever going to persuade Jack that war is not fun.

Viewed through shattered glimpses of history, Feldman’s characters are synonymous with their time and place. Although the book is depressing, the warmth of daily activity in the author’s depiction of 1950s America balances against private family grief and where the pain of dysfunction resides behind closed doors, rarely if ever discussed.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2011

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