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Source: Review copy from Hyperion
Rating: ★★★★☆

I know what this moment is — the moment every mother faces.  This is when my daughter leaves me, when she steps out into the stream, steps into her own life.  And so much about it is wrong:  this setting — the Occupation, the war.  But it still has to happen.

(from The Soldier’s Wife)

In The Soldier’s Wife, Margaret Leroy paints a quiet portrait of life in a small village near St. Peter Port on the island of Guernsey during the Nazi Occupation of the Channel Islands.  This World War II novel tells the story of Vivienne de la Mare, who holds down the fort while her husband is off at war.  She makes a last-minute decision not to evacuate to England, but after the Nazis bomb St. Peter Port and then take over the island with no resistance, she must figure out a way to keep her daughters, Blanche and Millie, and her ailing mother-in-law, Evelyn, safe and fed.

Several German soldiers take up residence next door to the de la Mare’s, and although Evelyn believes it is important to take a stand, Vivienne feels there is little she can do about their presence.  It is not long before Vivienne embarks on a secret affair with one of these soldiers, Gunther Lehmann, but everything changes when prisoners from Eastern Europe are brought to the island as slave labor.  Vivienne cannot reconcile the Gunther she knows in private with the soldier who must know something about the horrible way these prisoners are treated, and when she meets one of these prisoners face-to-face, it further complicates her life under the Occupation.

The Soldier’s Wife really shines in its descriptions of the day-to-day hardships of the Occupation, such as keeping to the curfews imposed by the Germans and improvising and stretching meals.  In Vivienne, Leroy emphasizes the loneliness many wives felt when their husbands were off fighting, and she has created a character who is not flawless but simply does her best to get by.  Leroy also shows how some of the residents struggled to resist the Germans in small ways, while others fraternized with the occupiers, drawing much criticism from their neighbors.  The one character I really felt for was Blanche, Vivienne’s 14-year-old daughter, whose coming of age occurs during the Occupation; what should be a carefree time of hanging out with friends, talking about boys, and worrying about clothes and makeup instead means having to go to work and worrying about the cold and hunger.

However, I wasn’t captivated by the love story.  It felt like it had been done before, and I couldn’t help but wonder how a woman with two kids and a mother-in-law could sneak a man into the house nearly every night without anyone ever hearing them.  Still, I appreciated Leroy’s portrayal of the German soldiers as men who had families back home and weren’t all evil.

The Soldier’s Wife is a beautifully descriptive book that imagines what life might have been like for a lonely wife unhappy with her marriage and overwhelmed with caring for her family in the midst of a war.  The Occupation may have been mostly peaceful, but that doesn’t mean the people of Guernsey didn’t suffer.  Leroy skillfully explores the shades of gray inherent in war, the sacrifices civilians were forced to make, and the ways in which their lives were forever changed.

Book 39 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received The Soldier’s Wife from Hyperion 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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