Review of “The Soldier’s Wife” by Margaret Leroy

This is an absorbing story written in beautiful, evocative prose with characters that are occasionally frustrating but all the more realistic for it. Set during World War II, the story takes us from the last day that Guernsey Islanders could evacuate for London before the arrival of the Germans in June, 1940, through all of the war, to an epilogue in 1946.

Vivienne de la Mare lives with her two children, Blanche, 14, and Millie, 4, in a lovely isolated home on the island. Her widowed mother-in-law Evelyn lives with them also. Vivienne’s husband Eugene has gone to war, but he had been gone in most senses before that; they had never truly been in love, and in any event had not had any sexual relations since Millie was conceived. Vivienne knows that Eugene has had a mistress.

When the Germans come, four German soldiers move into the deserted house next door. After a long struggle against her needs and her obvious attraction, Vivienne begins a relationship with one of them, Gunther Lehmann. Gunther too has a marriage back home in Germany that is inadequate in many ways, and Vivienne can sense his loneliness before they even speak. Gunther finds in Vivienne the love he never expected to have, and releases in her a passion that she only dreamed about. But it is an awkward situation. Vivienne feels like a traitor, and comes to loathe the behavior of the Germans wearing Nazi uniforms who supervise the slave laborers on the island. She never knows how much Gunther participates or knows about it; he prefers to leave all talk of the war outside of her door. She doesn’t understand how so much good and evil can coexist in the same universe.

Somewhat by accident and reluctantly, Vivienne becomes involved in the underground resistance on the island. She does this during the day, and makes love to a German at night. It is tearing Vivienne apart, and something has to give. It finally does, in the senseless way that so often happens in wartime.

Discussion: Complex issues raised by this story dilute the black and white of war with shades of gray that muddy any obvious judgments. The most salient issue is the tendency to lump all persons from an enemy nation into one category, refusing to consider that individuals vary, even in wartime. Part of the tragedy in this story is not only what war does to both the victims and the perpetrators, but that it leads to classifying all sorts of human beings with different interests and pasts and presents into only either victims or perpetrators.

The inability to communicate is another big problem for Vivienne and Gunther, and it is compounded by the fact that they are on two different sides of the war. Does love supplant loyalty to one’s country when under occupation? Is love even real in such circumstances, or is it a response to the fear and adrenaline and heightened senses of wartime?

But the biggest issue has nothing really to do with war at all, although the war affects it, and it is about trusting someone you love. Vivienne found she could not trust the love of her mother, who died when she was three, nor that of her husband, and she never learned how to give that trust to anyone else. As Billy Joel wrote, in the song “A Matter of Trust” that could have come from the lips of Gunther:

“It’s hard when you’re always afraid
You just recover when another belief is betrayed
So break my heart if you must
It’s a matter of trust

I’m sure you’re aware love
We’ve both had our share of
Believing too long
When the whole situation was wrong

Some love is just a lie of the soul
A constant battle for the ultimate state of control
After you’ve heard lie upon lie
There can hardly be a question of why

Whatever you choose
I won’t hold back anything
And I’ll walk a way a fool or a king”

But trust, trust is harder for Vivienne than questions of war and peace, or of good and evil. Ultimately, she must decide if she can take a chance on love. Her decision will haunt you long after you close the last page of this memorable book.

Evaluation: This book is really an excellent exposé of both the overt, obvious horrors of war, and the little everyday ones, that can rip up peoples’ hearts and lives, or make them stronger from the unexpected dawns that always come even after the darkest nights.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Hyperion & Voice, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2011

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32 Responses to Review of “The Soldier’s Wife” by Margaret Leroy

  1. Now I am curious about the ending?? Guess I should get to my copy sooner rather than later (or not??)

  2. JoAnn says:

    LOL! Was thinking this sounded pretty good as I read your review, then was surprised to see a 3.5 rating. Now you’ve got me curious about an ending that must be discussed immediately! Guess I’ll just have to read it for myself;-)

    • JoAnn,
      Originally I gave it a 4, because I thought it was quite good. But I spent so much time being annoyed, that compared to reading experiences when I love all the characters, I thought I should downgrade it a bit!

      • Care says:

        Sometimes, though, when I play with a rating of a story because I have an intense reaction, I usually go up BECAUSE the reaction was intense and not whether I liked it or not. (ratings schmatings…)

  3. Meghan says:

    I quite enjoyed this one when I read it (under the UK name of The Collaborator). I think I agree with you about the ending!

  4. Nymeth says:

    You’ve made me really curious about the ending! Plus it sounds like a very “me” book overall, dealing with a period and themes I’m generally interested in. I think I’ll check if the library has it (and thanks to Meghan for the UK title!)

  5. Sandy says:

    Yes, but there is something to be said about an ending that makes you THAT mental! I mean, that kind of controversy makes your head buzz, right? Not always a bad thing, even if you do throw the book! The synopsis kind of reminds me of Resistance, which is an incredible book. I think it takes place in Wales, all the men are gone, the women left to care for the farms and animals, then the Germans move in. I think I may have to read this one. I’ll get my throwing arm ready…

  6. kaye says:

    I thought this was an excellent story and really enjoyed it. It certainly gives the reader a lot to think about. Excellent review!!

  7. Barbara says:

    Hmmm, OK, I’m curious enough to try this one.

  8. Ti says:

    Is this the book that made you question the use of the word “tragic?”

  9. zibilee says:

    I have this book on my shelf, and now am eager to get to it. Your comments about the ending spark my interest, but it’s really what you have to say about the complexities of war and the way people judge each other and behave themselves that really intrigue me. It sounds like this book was very complex for a whole host of reasons, and now I am looking forward to it. A few other reviews I had read didn’t delve as deeply into the moral conundrums as you did, so I really appreciated the thoughtful analysis that you gave it.

  10. Stephanie says:

    I was hoping to get a copy of this at BEA in May, but missed out. I really want to read this one though (especially after reading a much different book about Guernsey called The Book of Lies recently).

  11. Tina B. says:

    This one is rapidly climbing to the top of my queue. It’s been sitting here too long, and I think I’m over my “no more war” funk from earlier this year, so I’m definitely planning to get to it soon.

  12. That character and that ending definitely are worth talking about! I’m so glad you put out that plea for someone to discuss!!! Haha, “secret spoilery conversation” is a good way to describe our little tête-à-tête. It makes me think of hidden notes and whispering behind the backs of foreign dignitaries, which means I’m having a silly attack and need to shut up. However . . . we really must read and discuss, again, some time!

  13. BermudaOnion says:

    Well, now I’m very curious about the ending!

  14. I still haven’t had a chance to read this book, but I’m really looking forward to it. I’ll have to e-mail you about the ending when I finish it. I’ve linked to your review on War Through the Generations.

  15. another Guernsey/WWII book…really?

    But I must say, that must be quite the ending.

  16. Melody says:

    I purchased this book about a week ago, but just haven’t got around to it though it’s high up on my TBR list.

  17. Alyce says:

    That type of an ending can really make or break a book for me. I’m so curious about what was annoying you. It might be worth reading the book just to see if I have the same reaction. 🙂

  18. Julie P. says:

    You’re making me want to read this just to see my reaction to the ending.

  19. Jenners says:

    The whole Guernsey setting makes me think of that Potato Peel book! I would keep expecting those characters to show up.

  20. Margot says:

    Excellent evaluation, Jill. Everything you’ve said makes me want to read this, even though I know it will bother me by the time I quit. But – I like to read books that make me think.

  21. Care says:

    I had been avoiding this book because SO MANY have the word WIFE in the title. But now I want to read it and want to read it now. Especially since BookFool is coming to visit next month and the convo on this sounds fun.

  22. Staci says:

    Oh no! Not one of those endings!! 😦
    I have a copy of this one so I can’t wait to see how I will feel at the ending!

  23. Jenny says:

    Tell me what the end is! Tell me, tell me! I’m dying to know! I don’t even know the plot and I’m already dying to know the end. Tell me, and I will weigh in.

    • Jenny says:

      Does the German have to shoot Vivienne? Does Vivienne have to shoot the German to protect some Jews she is smuggling away? Do the Germans steal her children and kill them in revenge for her wicked ways?

  24. Care says:

    Poor Jenny.

  25. Esme says:

    I want to know what your thoughts were of the end of the book-I quite enjoyed the book-the end was rather unsatisfying.

  26. Ceri says:

    Wow, this sounds like some read. I love stories that are set around the War and this one sounds, wow. So many different things to think about at once. Definitely need a copy of this!

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