Another historical novel from de Bernières (A Partisan’s Daughter, 2008, etc.): the agreeable, albeit predictable saga of an English family transformed by World War I.
It begins with the usual scene of prewar tranquility, in this case a 1902 coronation party in suburban London. Mr. and Mrs. McCosh, an investor/inventor and his eccentric wife, contentedly survey their four daughters. Beautiful Rosie, though only 12, already plans to marry the handsome boy next door, Ashbridge Pendennis. Somehow it seems inevitable, as the action jumps ahead 12 years and Ash announces that he’s enlisted immediately after becoming engaged to Rosie, that he won’t survive and will leave her grieving in a morbidly unhealthy way. Indeed, although a good portion of the book concerns the combat experiences of Ash in the infantry and Daniel Pitt, another London neighbor, in the Royal Flying Corps, its central subject is the adjustments everyone must make afterward. It’s not just veterans who miss the sense of purpose wartime service brought; Rosie’s sisters, who all did volunteer work, are both enticed and made restless by the expanded vistas for women that open after 1918. Their mother is horrified by this and every other postwar social change, described in the boilerplate passages de Bernières favors for scene-setting. Daniel waits patiently for Rosie to get over Ash, but that doesn’t happen even after they’re married. We get pretty tired of mopey Rosie, and although Christabel, Ottilie, and Sophie McCosh are livelier, each is a one-note outline—Christabel loves another woman, Ottilie is serenely mysterious, Sophie adorably misuses esoteric words—rather than a fully fleshed character. The large supporting cast is also sketched in broad strokes as the story moves forward, centered mostly on Rosie and Daniel. Their try for a new start in a new location, coupled with an abrupt ending and a hint in the author’s acknowledgments, suggests the McCoshes and kith will be making further appearances.
Readable and mildly engaging but lacking fresh insights into very familiar material.