As the U.S. sits on the sidelines in the early days of World War I, Harvard students with ties to Britain and Germany prepare to go to war in this unusual historical novel.
Jordan’s debut tells the story of a group of Harvard classmates and upper-crust Boston families struggling with loyalty to their countries of origin and to their alma mater as WWI heats up in Europe in 1914. The novel centers around Helen Brooks, an incoming freshman at Radcliffe who has failed to secure a husband. Helen’s eccentric family is accepted as part of Boston’s elite in spite of her mother’s radicalism. Helen, a talented writer and editor, is admitted to an editing class at Harvard taught by professor Charles Copeland, a friend of her father’s. There, she meets a pair of cousins, British-born Rhyland Cabot Spencer, or Riley, and his German cousin, Wilhem von Lützow Brandl, Wils for short. When one of their German classmates is found dead, suspicion falls on patriotic students bent on stoking anti-German sentiment. Wils is suspected of being a spy and realizes he will have to leave Boston soon. Although Riley initially fixes Helen’s attention, she slowly finds herself falling for Wils, in spite of her own complicated feelings about the war. “Men start wars,” she tells her father. “[T]hey die, and women are sad.” The book is a thoughtful look at a turning point in world history, but the relationships between friends and cousins on opposite sides of the conflict are overly simplistic. Wils and Riley, for example, seem little troubled by their divided loyalties to Britain and Germany. The plot, too, is at times too pat, especially once the cousins reach the battlefields of Belgium.
Still, Helen is a sympathetic and complicated main character. Her strengths and weaknesses keep the reader’s attention, making this a worthwhile read.