NEXT TO LOVE by Ellen Feldman

Book Quote:

“They love one another with an atavistic ferocity, though, it occurs to Babe sitting in the sunporch, these days perhaps they do not like one another. But she is asking too much of them. Friendship, like marriage, is not all of a piece.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (JUL 28, 2011)

“War…next to love, has captured the world’s imagination,” said the British lexicographer Eric Partridge in 1914. And indeed it has. in English classes, we rapidly become acquainted with The Naked and the Dead, All Quiet on the Western Front, For Whom The Bell Tolls, From Here to Eternity, Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five…the list goes on and on.

But here’s what we don’t read about: the personal battles that are fought on the home front. We don’t get an upfront-and-personal look at the women behind the men and what war means to them…and to the children they create together.

Next To Love starts out very strong. We meet three childhood friends in Massachusetts – Babe, Millie, and Grace – whose men are on the cusp of going off to World War II. Ms. Feldman deftly juggles their stories and breathes life into their characters. Grace is the beauty who is married to the heir of one of the town’s most illustrious citizens and has a young daughter; Millie is married to Pete, the pharmacist’s son; and Babe is the feisty wrong-side-of-the-tracks gal who is in a committed relationship with an upstanding man who wants to become a teacher.

The period details are handled beautifully. Ellen Feldman summons up an age where instant communication (cell phones, Internet, etc.) did not exist and when lovers wrote their heart out in letters. It’s an age where women were divided into “nice girls” and “tramps” and men kept a stiff upper lip and talked about “honor” and “duty.” And it’s an age when the telegram is feared and one town can suddenly lose several of its beloved American boys overnight.

It’s also a time when there’s a clear divide between men and women. “The husbands speak the language of drills, marches, and officers who don’t know which end is up; the wives speak the dialect of carping landladies, dirty bathrooms and no hot water to wash their hair, and endless spirit-killing games of bridge. Since there is no common tongue between them, they communicate in sex,” writes Ms. Feldman. In this aspect, the book calls to mind another excellent one: Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When The Men Are Gone.

Profound change comes after the war. The novel takes on a lot in a scant 300 pages and the characters I had come to love in the first half begin to feel a little bit like stand-ins as the forces of history flow past. Yet Ms. Feldman’s riveting style keeps the reader in a “what’s next?” mode.

We are at their side as they try to understand the men who have been forever changed by the horrors of war; one of them has what would be called post-traumatic stress disorder today. We see the toll it takes on their young children who can only fantasize about the fathers they have never met. And we are on the sidelines of what is now familiar milestones: the way that black veterans are shuffled aside after the war, unable to participate in the new prosperity; the treatment of women as frivolous things, not worthy of jobs or deep thoughts; the bigotry against Jews, ironically, after a war where six million of them were callously murdered.

Ultimately, the book is focused on female friendship – at turns, courageous, poignant, and fragile. The friendships are not idealized, but rather portrayed to be sustaining, enduring, and nurturing. At its core, it is about survival through life, love, children, war, grief, and resurgence, delivered with just the right amount of drama and intensity.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 88 readers
PUBLISHER: Spiegel & Grau (July 26, 2011)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: As mentioned above:

Read our review of Ellen Feldman’s:



July 28, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, NE & New York, Reading Guide

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