Gregory (The Other Queen, 2008, etc.) leaves Tudor gowns behind for the Jazz Age in this addictive tale, originally published in the United Kingdom in 1993, of two wounded soldiers and the pervasive cost of war.
The novel begins with Stephen Winters recalling the Flanders fields of World War I, of the deep mud and bits of bodies underfoot, of the unrelenting terror of gunfire. Since his father’s stroke (at the news of favorite son Christopher’s death), Stephen has taken over the law practice, and he finds solace only with Coventry, his mute chauffer and wartime aid. Then he sees Lily Valance singing at the theater and is thunderstruck by the luminous joy of her face and voice—she reminds him of girls before the war, before everything was ruined. He courts her with his wealth, but his advances are rejected; Lily is 17 and in love with the theater’s musical director, Charlie Smith (though devoted to Lily, he refuses to marry her—a war wound has left him impotent). When Lily’s mother dies, Stephen, convinced Lily will cure him of his shell shock, coerces her into wedlock at her most vulnerable. Their honeymoon is a disaster (Stephen is sadistic and controlling), and the marriage continues in this vein when Stephen brings her to live with his mother Muriel, disapproving of the merchant-class theater girl, and his father Rory, upstairs and half-dead. But Lily is bright and resilient, and soon she is singing again professionally (after a fat lip from Stephen). She has Rory up and beginning to speak, and even Muriel begrudgingly admits Lily has an undeniable grace. Their house becomes fashionable with both society mavens and young bohemians—the only one not happy is Stephen, who has become more violent and unpredictable. When they have a little boy, the emotional torment really starts. The only bright spot in Lily’s life is Charlie Smith, who vows to save Lily and her son, if only he’s able before Stephen destroys them all.
This great doorstop of a romantic tragedy illustrates Gregory’s winning formula: A young woman triumphs despite a hostile male society.