Leroy, whose fiction specializes in prickly mothers, turns from the paranormal (Yes, My Darling Daughter, 2009, etc.) to the historical in this story of torn loyalties during the World War II German occupation of the isle of Guernsey.
Originally from London, Vivienne has lived in Guernsey since she married Eugene, with whom she has had a loveless marriage. In 1940, with Eugene away in the military, Vivienne lives with her increasingly senile mother-in-law and her daughters, 4-year-old Millie and 14-year-old Blanche. Beset by indecision, Vivienne misses the chance to leave Guernsey with the girls before the Germans take over the island. Her anxiety, already high after German bombing kills a friend’s husband, rises when German soldiers move into the vacant house next door. But she also finds herself attracted to one of the captains, Gunther Lehmann, who offers her small favors like chocolate candy and a ride home in the rain. She rather quickly succumbs, and soon he is sneaking into her arms every night at 10 sharp. Vivienne compartmentalizes her passion for Gunther, her protectiveness toward her girls and her patriotic anger at the Germans. The lovers discuss their pasts but avoid the reality of their situation; it helps that Gunther evinces no respect for Hitler. When gossip spreads about her fraternizing, Vivienne skillfully defuses suspicion. Harder to ignore is the information she discovers about inhumane labor camps on Guernsey. By the third winter, the Germans begin to deport and incarcerate non-natives like Vivienne, but Gunther keeps her safe. Meanwhile, through Millie, Vivienne meets and helps an escapee from the labor camp. She is preparing the escapee’s breakfast one morning when Gunther shows up unexpectedly. She is not sure how much he knows or suspects, but shortly afterward, the escapee is tracked down and shot. Assuming he turned her in, she breaks with Gunther, only to learn the truth too late, after he has been transferred to the Eastern front.
Vivienne’s measured, astringent voice is riveting and her moral ambiguity deliciously disturbing until the disappointingly maudlin ending.