Privileged young Londoners lose their sense of entitlement and their moral innocence in Cleave’s (Gold, 2012, etc.) romantic but very adult World War II love story.
In 1939, Mary North and her friend Hilda are cosseted upper-class girls used to servants and tea at the Ritz. But as soon as England declares war, 18-year-old Mary quits finishing school and signs up to serve through the War Office. Sent to an elementary school, she is disappointed when practically her first task is to help evacuate her students from London. Looking for another teaching position, she meets 23-year-old Tom Shaw, who runs the school district. Melancholy iconoclast Tom does not enlist, believing “someone must stay behind who understands how to put it all back together,” but his more debonair roommate, Alistair, a conservator at the Tate, does join up. At first Alistair’s brutal experiences on the battlefront offer a stark contrast to the ease of the Londoners’ lives. Mary relishes teaching misfit children who remain in London, forming a particular bond with 10-year-old Zachary, a black American—the era’s racial prejudice becomes an undercurrent throughout the novel. Mary and Tom fall into heady love. Hilda remains a boy-crazy snob. When Alistair comes home on leave, the four spend an evening together. Hilda is attracted to Alistair, who is drawn to Mary, who is attracted back but does her best to remain loyal to Tom, who secretly tries to enlist but is turned down. Alistair ends up on Malta facing dire conditions under the Axis blockade. Meanwhile, the Blitz hits London. Suddenly no one is safe, and all face harsh realities. While Mary, Tom, and Alistair are all deeply complicated beneath their bantering wit, it is secondary character Hilda who grabs the reader’s heart as she evolves from Noel Coward joke into full-fledged human being.
Among all the recent fictions about the war, Cleave’s miniseries of a novel is a surprising standout, with irresistibly engaging characters who sharply illuminate issues of class, race, and wartime morality.