Well, what was it like? The generation that fought in World War II is dying out. As we confront the horrors brought back from Iraq and Afghanistan, we have to look back. Especially those of us whose fathers fought between 1942 and 1945, who never talked about it. We hear now about the shock, the everlasting horror of the current wars, but those men kept it all buttoned up. Didn’t want to scare the ladies. Didn’t want to re-live it.
So here is Ellen Feldman, in Next to Love, filling in a few blanks. In fictional South Downs, Massachusetts, the men go off to war and some of them do not come back. But there are their wives, Babe, Millie, and Grace. What happened? How did it feel? What was it like in 1942 as they had dinner together before the men left? What was it like the day the telegrams came? (An amazing scene, by the way. The way Feldman sets this up is cinematic and incredibly affecting.) How did the women cope? How did the men cope, if they returned?
This is an ambitious book, as Feldman proclaims from the outset with a series of epigraphs about war. We are meant to take note that what is particular is also general; what happened in 1945 is also happening now. By setting the novel in a small town and selecting characters in different social and cultural situations, Feldman casts her net wide. Much of the book is set afterward, as postwar prosperity brings cars and televisions and air conditioning to the middle class. One widow marries a Jew. One spends time in a sanitarium. If they feel a shade representative, the characters are still deeply individual. Babe, the restless intellectual, is sometimes discerning and sometimes annoys her friends with her enthusiasms. Grace, the conventional one, seeks security, while Millie navigates a series of losses. If the three women the book centers on are emblematic, they are also real.
I did have slight reservations about how the passage of time is played out. The novel covers the period from 1941 to 1964. Is it possible to travel that long a time a span in a 300-page novel without feeling like a highlights reel? (GI bill, civil rights, wives taking tranquilizers, check, check, check…) On the other hand, I valued the chance to imagine living with some of the values and limitations that were still motivating my parents as I grew up. The anxiety about sex was especially keenly depicted, but I also remembered my parents’ class anxiety. More substantially, I was bothered by the way the narrative, centered in one of the principal trio or another, backs up and moves forward so that the reader really has to watch the dates on each section. I think I can see why an author would do that — after all, a funeral will feel different to a widow than it does to her friend — but it’s not entirely successful.
Still, this novel is written with such elegance and such heart that the chronology is a small issue. Again and again, the emotional situations and responses are unexpected but just right, as is the end. When it unfolds, you’ll see what I mean. And the last line of the book is brilliant:
“If there were no war?” he repeats. “Imagine.”