A debut historical novel chronicles the lives of four young Parisians living under the specter of potential war.
In 1905, Robert d’Avillard is studying civil engineering in Paris at the Ecole Polytechnique and is part of a spirited young group of student intellectuals who gather regularly to discuss political currents. The topic of the day is the alarming aggressiveness of Germany and its encouragement of an independence movement in Morocco. Robert is inspired by the patriotic commitment of a soldier, Col. Ferdinand Foch, who implores him to join the military, which will desperately need talented engineers to fortify its infrastructure in advance of an increasingly inevitable German invasion. Meanwhile, Robert falls in love with Sarah Morozovski, a student of law and political philosophy, who is fiercely antagonistic to the general threat of militarism and sympathetic with socialist causes. But the two are pulled apart just as their romance blooms, when Robert joins the corps of army engineers and Sarah accepts a position working for a journalistic publication in Berlin. In her absence, Robert begins a new relationship with Marie Bonneau, a young musician, but even as their courtship hurtles toward eventual matrimony, he never forgets Sarah, and those feelings are reignited when they meet again years later in Paris. Robert’s cousin, Thomas, who was a student of philosophy and theology, becomes a priest but also becomes fond of Marie just as Sarah re-enters the scene. While the book follows the entangled romantic complications of the four friends, the backbone of the story is really the inexorable march toward World War I and the impact it has not only on the novel’s protagonists, but also France and Europe. Whitaker skillfully captures the crisis of impending world war and the national anxiety this created for a whole generation of young French men and women whose lives were permanently altered by its arrival. The author’s knowledge of the era’s geopolitical particulars is beyond reproach. But the tale’s drama is deflated by the wooden, overly genteel prose, especially evident in the dialogue. Consider Robert asking Sarah out to dinner: “If you don’t feel that you need to go home to change, we can go to a place that my family has known for years, which I think you will not only find quite hygienic but also quite special.”
A sharp historical tableau of early-20th-century France that is undermined by uneven writing.