It took Julie Berry, the author of a number of celebrated novels for young audiences, a few attempts at her latest YA novel, Lovely War, before her ideas got some traction. In reading about World War II, she was repeatedly struck by how often references were made to experiences in World War I, a conflict largely glossed over in the United States due to the brevity of that country’s involvement. “I wanted to show the scope of that war,” Berry explains, “how long it was, how big it was, but I struggled to figure out how to form a young adult novel about it.” After a number of attempts, including pages and pages of false starts that would have to be thrown aside, inspiration struck—from the heavens.
“There really was divine inspiration,” Berry says, referring to the blossoming of her narrative with the introduction of a pantheon of divine narrators. “I realized I needed a nonhuman perspective,” she explains. “I needed an omniscient mind that understood the war in its totality but would still allow me to tell a more personal story about a small handful of individuals.”
In Lovely War, a jealous Hephaestus lays a trap for his cheating wife Aphrodite and her lover, his brother, Aries, in a New York hotel room. The year is 1942, and against the backdrop of man-made devastation on a global scale, the god of fire demands that Love and War stand trial for their crimes against him. In her defense, Aphrodite says she is incapable of true love herself and offers two tales of love as evidence: those of Hazel and James and Collette and Aubrey, two couples whose lives and relationships were defined by the first Great War. The goddess turns over the authorial voice to other gods as they offer testimony about the parts of the story they influenced—Aries in war, Apollo in art, and Hades in death.
Hazel first feels James’ eyes on her as she plays the piano at a benefit event in London in 1917. Their connection is immediate, and despite the fact that James is about to ship out to France, they allow themselves to fall for each other. Hazel falls so hard, in fact, that she ends up leaving behind her privileged life in England to follow her beau to the continent, deciding to volunteer at a Red Cross camp.
“Women’s lives changed in countless ways,” Berry notes of World War I. “By the time World War II came around, it wasn’t Rosie the Riveter’s first time at the rodeo.” Especially in Britain, women flooded the workforce to fill the places left behind as entire generations of men left for the front. “I hadn’t remembered the connection between women’s suffrage and World War I,” Berry says, “but it really was like letting a genie out of the bottle. Once women proved they were plenty capable and disciplined, there was no going back.”
If Hazel’s and James' lives prior to the war were relatively problem-free, Aubrey’s and Collette’s lives are very much the opposite. For Collette, it’s the “Rape of Belgium,” the unbelievable destruction Germany unleashed on the neutral nation, while for Aubrey, it’s the brutal reality of life as a black man in segregated America—something that follows him even as he travels across the world to fight for the nation that sees and treats him as lesser. While each couple faces different challenges, they are able to see the strength and conviction of their own love reflected in the other.
As the trial drags on, as the gods weave their tale, and as connections ebb and trauma flows, an overarching question hangs above them all like the sword of Damocles. “This really is a story about whether true love can overcome brokenness,” Berry says, “about whether love is still even viable in this modern, nuclearized world. Personally, I don’t think I could begin to answer that question in anything other than a 400-page book.”
James Feder is a writer living in Tel Aviv.