There is always something shifting and ambiguous about the characters Vanderbes serves up to us, something which requires our full attention and our judgment reserved. We are forced to rethink our opinions of her characters as we move through the stories because they surprise us, but not in a fundamental way. Fundamentally there is always something true at the center.
Which bring me to what I like best about Vanderbes’ fiction: she does not skirt the truth. She nails the truth. It may not be what we would have wanted, or would have chosen for ourselves, but life is like that.
This is a book about war: World War II, in fact. So many novels have been written about WWII that readers are wily, knowledgeable, heard it all, seen it all. But war concentrates the mind wonderfully. And in this conflict, perhaps we haven’t quite seen it all. Vanderbes makes it new, placing the action in Italy away from news of troop movements and victories, and layering the work with untold, or underreported stories that stun us with recognition. The cruel and casual violence shows us the futility and destruction of war, even here, in the “good” war.
A young woman, Juliet, after receiving a letter from her brother who is reported to be missing-in-action, manages to get herself posted to Italy as a nurse in hopes that she might run into his regiment and learn news of him. The short section (Part I) introduces Juliet and her brother in South Carolina. I wish the novel could have begun with Part II somehow, lacing in the fore-story as it progressed. The explosive machine of war combined with Vanderbes extraordinary characterizations and insinuated truths make her story completely compelling.
Is it even possible to write a war story that isn’t about loss? Would we want to read it if it were? Well, this story is about loss but it is also about how we reconcile loss, how we go on living with that loss. We are given the arc of a woman’s life from teen to grandmother. Now she has seen it all: “…[she was] part of the collective walk, the unending march of history. Along the way things were dropped, others picked up…That was the arc of life, it seemed; the slow and grateful recognition of those who were, by chance or fate, simply with you.” It may not be what we would have wanted, or would have chosen for ourselves, but life is like that.
“I’m not sure if you made me believe in God, but you sure made me believe in people.”
He smiled. “Same thing.”
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