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Source: Review copy from Harper
Rating: ★★★★★

Purefoy kept throwing; kept throwing.  He threw for weeks, for months.  At some stage he was given proper grenades and a helmet, though they all learnt to piss on a handkerchief to breathe through long before gas masks came around.  One night he saw Captain Harper flying across the sky like a whirling starfish before shattering into a flaming shell crater, and he put the sight in that special part of his brain he would never go to again, fed it through the greedy slot in the forever unopenable door.  His thoughts jumped like fleas, like drops of water on a hot plate, uncatchable, inexplicable.

(from My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, pages 46-47)

I’m going to have such a hard time picking my list of the best books I read this year if I keep adding to the list of contenders, but here’s another one that simply cannot be ignored.  My Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young is a haunting tale of love and war set in England and France during World War I, full of descriptions that are both beautiful and horrifying.

Young centers her story on two young couples.  Being hit by a snowball as a young boy forever changes the life of working-class Riley Purefoy, whose chance meeting with the upper-class Waveney family and an artist puts him on the path toward bettering himself.  But when Riley and Nadine Waveney fall in love, he learns that it is virtually impossible to cross the class divide and that her parents would never accept their relationship.  In 1914, Riley impulsively joins the army, figuring that if he’s killed, Nadine’s parents won’t have to worry about him anymore, but he also could return as an officer and a gentleman worthy of the woman he loves.

Young follows Nadine as she joins the Voluntary Aid Detachment as part of the war effort, thinking about every injured soldier as if he was Riley and keeping in mind the nurses at the front who may or may not be caring for him.  She also puts readers into the trenches with Riley, where he befriends his commanding officer, Peter Locke, whose wife, Julia, is not fit for war work so spends all of her time making sure she and their house are beautiful for when he returns home.  Peter’s cousin, Rose, a woman who has resigned herself to being single, works as a nurse, and it is through her that the paths of all of these characters will cross.

I absolutely loved My Dear I Wanted to Tell You from the very beginning.  Young’s writing is just about perfect, from her masterful use of description to her ability to portray the inner turmoil of so many unique characters all at once.  She skillfully paints a picture of a society being changed by the war, with women becoming more ambitious and independent and more willing to talk about and embrace their sexuality.  The female characters are all quite different, with Rose professing no need for marriage and even becoming a smoker, Nadine wanting to break free from the responsibilities forced upon her by her family’s societal standing and to travel and be an artist, and Julia wanting nothing more than to be a good and beautiful wife.

At the same time, she gets into the heads of Riley and Peter and shows how they process the horrible things they witness on the battlefield, whether thinking of themselves as non-existent when in the midst of the chaos or turning to women and drink to forget the painful images.  Regardless of how they cope, Young emphasizes an important truth, that they and their relationships with their wives and girlfriends will never be the same again.  Nadine understands Riley to a certain extent due to her VAD work, but Julia has a hard time coping with the changes she sees in her husband and his distance from the romantic life they once shared.

I was surprised by how quickly I became invested in these characters and how real they and their experiences felt to me.  Although a love story at its core, the war and its impact is so vivid and so well portrayed that the romance really takes a back seat to everything else (which is why I think the hardcover image is a better representation of the story than the paperback cover at the beginning of this post).  Young also goes into great detail about the facial reconstruction surgeries pioneered at the hospital in Sidcup, which was fascinating but hard to read.

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You is a novel that really gets to the heart of what it means to go to war and how nothing will ever be the same again for both the soldiers and their loved ones, even if they are lucky enough to come home.  Young doesn’t shy away from describing the horrific things that happen in war, including the fear that prompted some soldiers to go to great lengths to escape the fighting, and she also emphasizes the home front, from the misinformation in the newspapers to the impact of the war on a marriage.  If you haven’t read too much about WWI or simply want to read a book rich with history, beautiful writing, and surprisingly real characters (and you aren’t afraid of the darkness and intensity that accompany depictions of war), then you must give this one a try.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for having me on the blog tour for My Dear I Wanted to Tell You.  To follow the tour, click here.

Book 10 for the WWI Reading Challenge

Book 25 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received My Dear I Wanted to Tell You from Harper for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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