Full disclosure: Elaine Schroller is a friend of mine, and I received a copy of her novel in exchange for a free and fair review.
In 1939, Sophie and Joe Parker are about to make a sort of pilgrimage to Villers-Bretonneaux, France, the site of the most vicious battle Joe fought in during World War I, the one that gives him nightmares.
In 1916, Sophie Holt is a young American nurse volunteering in a hospital in Paris when she meets Second Lieutenant Joe Parker on leave from the Australian army. Joe is married, but they begin a friendship through letters that lasts the duration of the war. Joe’s wife Annie dies in the flu epidemic, but when Joe goes to look for Sophie at the end of the war, he finds that she’s married a British surgeon and moved to England.
The first third of the novel covers this relationship and follows the two until they get together after Sophie is widowed. Then it shifts in tone and purpose as Joe’s PTSD comes to the surface with the trip to France and the couple notice odd things going on in the valley around Chamonix.
It may be that this strong focus on their relationship creates some issues for me—in particular, that of characterization. Although both Sophie and Joe are likable characters, there is no sense of the personality of any of the other characters. For example, Sophie’s best friend only appears in one scene and later is reported killed. Sophie adopts her son, who is only mentioned in the novel and maybe speaks once, and Joe’s son hardly appears. And so on until it gets to Chamonix, so that I missed from this novel a real sense of what its other characters are like.
Until the trip to France in 1939, there is also little sense of the characters’ surroundings. That changes with descriptions of the landscape, and the novel, which seems to lag a little in the transition, picks up quite a bit.
Schroller has done a lot of research about the role of Australian soldiers in World War I France, that is clear. In her next book, I hope she works more at filling out the secondary characters and the sense of the world around them, both in setting and in the life of others.