|Louisa Young’ s debut novel about four diverse British characters experiencing World War I is difficult to review. It’s beautifully written and extremely moving at times, but it attempts to accomplish too much in 300 pages and its central love story doesn’t fully resonate.
Riley Purefoy is 11 years old when he is befriended by Nadine Waveney, who introduces the London working class boy to her comfortably middle-class, artistic family. Riley falls in love with Nadine as the years go by, but he realizes her family will never approve of a match between them because of his humble background. In frustration and in shame after a drunken homosexual encounter, Riley enlists in the army. When the recruitment form asks if Riley wishes to serve for a year or for “the duration,” he quickly chooses the latter option because neither he nor anyone else can imagine the war lasting for more than a few months.
Of course we know our history. Riley finds himself in the middle of a hellish war, where to his surprise his brains and leadership skills make him a good soldier and an officer candidate. He writes polite letters to Nadine, afraid to tell her the truth – “I love you, it’s hell, I walk on corpses and breathe death, it’s only a matter of time before I prove a coward, but I don’t understand, either I kill people, or I’m a coward, that’s the choice, someone somewhere set it up and I get no vote…”
Nadine finds work as an army nurse, and eventually ends up in France where she also starts to question the meaning of everything after seeing thousands of wounded, dying and dead soldiers. The relationship between these two individuals is presented in contrast to the one between Peter Locke (Riley’s commanding officer) and his wife Julia, a seemingly perfectly matched aristocratic couple. The Lockes’ marriage falls apart during the war when Peter turns to alcohol to numb the horrors he’s experienced and Julia finds there is no longer a role for a woman who has been raised solely to be a beautiful trophy wife.
I dog-eared numerous pages of the book because they were so striking. The atrocities of war and the sad truth of life’s fragility have been documented many times, but Young somehow brings fresh eyes to the story, and puts voice to the helplessness and absurdity faced by both the soldiers and the ones they leave behind.
Yet although individual moments are powerful, the novel as a whole ultimately doesn’t quite work. A large part of the plot is taken up with a major character’s plastic surgery necessary to repair a disfigured face, and although it is interesting to note that WWI was the first time this type of surgery was performed, the lengthy medical details take away from the story’s flow. While both Riley and Nadine are sympathetic characters, their love story doesn’t fully engage the reader, primarily because they are separated by the war early on and then only encounter each other sporadically over the course of the next four years. Young tells us that Riley is madly in love with Nadine, but since their childhood together is given such short shrift we never quite feel it. Finally, Peter and Julia Locke seem more like symbols than real people, because their characters are not fully developed.
When deliberating between giving a book three or four hearts, I think long and hard about whether I would want to read the author’s next release. I would hesitate if I saw another Louisa Young novel, so I’m going with three hearts, but I will readily admit that the novel in many ways is unforgettable and could have easily approached keeper status given an additional 100 pages to flesh out all of the subplots.
Although it is being marketed as a historical romance, readers should be aware that My Dear I Wanted to Tell You features several graphic scenes on the battlefield and in the operating room, and is not for the fainthearted.