One hundred years ago this summer, the world changed.
From July 1914 to November 1918, over 9 million people were lost in one of the most deadly wars in history, and in its wake, empires would fall, a new social order would rise, and, shockingly, governments would set the stage for yet another devastating conflict only one generation down the road.
But the true costs of war—even one so earth-shattering as World War I—are human lives and calamitous loss, and for most of those 9 million casualties, there was at least one corresponding broken heart, either familial or romantic.
I find the stories of war very romantic, but as a romance fan, it’s hard to know that, in real life, there were so many unhappy endings. The idea of war is romantic, the brutal reality of it is something else entirely. We all know this. World War I was especially notable for its brutality and senselessness.
Still, I think it’s important that we remember this great and horrible war, and learning how the world changed in its aftermath is powerful and illuminating.
While I know there are some wonderful WWI romances out there, I haven’t had the privilege of reading many of them. Many years ago I read Catherine Cookson’s The Wingless Bird, but I feel like I remember the PBS Masterpiece Theater version more than the book. (I recommend them both.)
One of my favorite writers, Eva Ibbotson, wrote two of my all-time favorite romances, A Countess Below Stairs and The Reluctant Heiress (originally published as Magic Flutes) These two lush, lovely sweetheart romances take place immediately after WWI, and give a glimpse into the shattered state of European aristocracy following the conflict. They’ve been rereleased as Young Adult fiction in the past few years, but the romance and story arcs are sophisticated and compelling.
Overseas by Beatriz Williams has a fantastic WWI time-travel premise that I will simply have to find the time to sink into this summer, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of The Great War. Her recent release, The Secret Life of Violet Grant, partially takes place in the same era, and is getting terrific reviews, even being compared to A.S. Byatt’s Possession, another all-time favorite. (You can read the Kirkus review for Overseas here and for Violet Grant here.)
If you’re an eclectic reader who doesn’t necessarily need a romance happily-ever-after, then I hope you’ll pick up the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear, and her most recent and hauntingly beautiful novel, The Care and Management of Lies. (It received a Kirkus starred review and I wrote about it for NPR, if you’re interested.)
Some other WWI-era books I’ve heard great things about are The Wild Rose by Jennifer Donnelly; The Hello Girls by Merline Lovelace; and My Dear I wanted To Tell You by Louisa Young.
For students of history who can bear an unflinching look at the era, Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy is not to be missed.
Finally, though I haven’t read the book, I can’t tell you how much I loved the film adaptation of Sébastien Japrisot's A Very Long Engagement, possibly one of the best movies of the past 10 years. It’s French, stars Audrey Tatou and succeeds in an alchemic mix of charm, humor, horrific reality (it is about WWI), hope and romance.
This summer, I hope you’ll take the time to read at least one piece of literature that gives a nod to the Great War. Savage and stunning, it was supposed to be the War To End All Wars. It certainly was the War That Ended The World as We Knew It.
So how about you? Any commentary to add on these books, or other WWI books you can recommend?