Lilly had been fearful, too, but had done her best to hide it when Edward had said good-bye. He, and all his friends, seemed to regard the war as a great lark. To them it was a blessed chance to do, to act, to be forged by the crucible of war into better men. An improbable notion, Lilly was sure, though she could understand its appeal. What had any of them actually done with their lives thus far, despite the riches and privileges heaped upon them?
(from Somewhere in France, page 21)
Somewhere in France is a beautifully crafted novel set during the Great War that emphasizes the horrors of the trenches without actually taking readers inside them and the changing roles of women as a result of war. Jennifer Robson focuses her debut novel on Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford, a young woman from an aristocratic family who is suffocating under her mother’s expectations that she marry well. Lilly has longed to pursue an education, travel the world, and put in an honest day’s work, and when Britain is swept up in the chaos of World War I, she hopes to finally have the chance to prove herself.
Lilly is out of touch with the larger world due to her sheltered upbringing, but she is a strong woman with enough faith in herself and enough courage to walk away from the security afforded by her life as Lady Elizabeth. She moves to London, living on toast and tea and the meager salary she earns as a bus conductress. She might not have had the strength to pursue her independence had it not been for Robbie Fraser, her brother’s best friend, whom she has loved since she was a child.
With her brother, Edward, and Robbie’s encouragement, Lilly eventually becomes an ambulance driver and is sent to France, where Robbie is stationed as a surgeon. When Lilly arrives in France, she is no longer just the girl he dreams about but can never have, given her mother’s disapproval of his social status. Their relationship strengthens as Lilly witnesses first-hand the gruesome tragedies Robbie couldn’t put into words for her before, and it is torn apart by the fear and danger of living in a battle zone.
The narrative alternates between the points of view of both Lilly and Robbie, giving readers a glimpse into how their vastly different upbringings shaped their personalities. Robbie didn’t like to focus on how he overcame his impoverished childhood, while Lilly shed her life as Lady Elizabeth because she didn’t want any special treatment. By letting readers get to know Edward as well, Robson emphasizes the different coping strategies used to survive amidst so much hell.
Somewhere in France is at its core a wartime romance, but it is so much more than that. Robson brings to life the battles at home and abroad and shines a light on the women who got their hands dirty and put their lives on the line for the war effort. Robson keeps the narrative off the actual battlefield, but the descriptions of the ambulance runs and the casualty clearing stations are just as powerful as stories told from the trenches. Once I started this novel, I couldn’t stop and read its nearly 400 pages in one sitting. I fell in love with the characters and was captivated by the atmosphere Robson created, and while I haven’t read too many World War I novels, Somewhere in France ranks among the best I’ve read so far.
Disclosure: I received Somewhere in France from William Morrow for review.
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