In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a fan of historical fiction. You might think you can read only so many books about World War II, the Tudors, or almost any European royal family before losing interest but apparently, for me, that’s not true. There’s always some aspect of history I knew nothing about and, while I should read non-fiction for accuracy’s sake, it puts me to sleep. So, historical fiction it is!
We That Are Left is a tangled tale of one aristocratic British family, the Melvilles; their estate; a young boy, Oscar and his mother, and World War I. Sisters Jessica and Phyllis, live with their parents and brother Theo on their vast estate, Ellinghurst. As young children it is a place of intrigue and endless adventure especially for Jessica and Theo. For Oscar, only the library holds any attraction, as he is often the brunt of the others’ jokes. As they get older, the estate loses is charms as Jessica dreams of a debutante’s life in London and Phyllis longs to go to university to study. With the advent of the war, all dreams are exchanged for hard realities. The first of these is the loss of Theo, the heir apparent and his mother’s favorite. Phyllis cannot go to university but does leave the countryside to be a nurse in London. For Jessica, there is nothing but stultifying days with nothing to do and no one to pay attention to her. Only Oscar, with the help of Sir Melville, is able to go to university. As the war drags on, their three lives intersect again and again in ways they never dreamt.
We That Are Left overlays the families’ stories with those of the war, creating a multi-faceted novel that delves into how the changing times affected not only the individual but also the institutions of Britain. Ellinghurst is the inanimate heart of the novel, its value changing, literally and figuratively, for each character throughout the decade. The only shortcoming of the novel is that Clark presents interesting ancillary characters but then fails to explore the very issues that make them so interesting. This leaves loose ends in a novel that is otherwise satisfying historical fiction.
This day in 1962 President Kennedy was notified that Russia had amassed nuclear missiles in Cuba. Despite how close we came to a third world war fiction about the Cuban Missile Crisis is not plentiful but author Susan Carol McCarthy makes it the focus of her new novel, A Place We Knew Well. The novel is set in Orlando, Florida, and is centered on Wes and Sarah Avery and their sixteen-year-old daughter, Charlotte. In them, McCarthy is able to bring to life the crisis from three very different perspectives. Wes was a tail gunner during WWII and so knows early on that what is happening in Florida with the nearby Air Force base is much more than training exercises. On the surface Sarah is the perfect 1960s housewife. Impeccably coiffed and dressed, she does her patriotic duty on the Civil Defense committee of the local Women’s Club. Underneath, she needs a steady dose of Nembutal to cope with a world that seems increasingly frightening and unmanageable. For Charlotte, life in October 1962i about being voted part of the Homecoming court. The tension around her is increased when she agrees to go to the dance with a boy in her school who is a Cuban exile.
McCarthy handles the pacing well in that A Place We Knew Well holds your attention. By focusing on the 13 days leading up to the deadline for each country’s demands McCarthy is able to illustrate not only the panic of the final days but the slow building of tension in not only the Averys but in everyone around them. Where things go a bit awry is with plot overload. McCarthy adds not one but two additional stories involving Sarah Avery. One is of a very real issue of the times but combined with the second, left that character with nowhere to go but an overwrought conclusion that felt unrealistic. A novel about the Cuban Missile Crisis alone is hard to come by and offers so much material to work with that additional dramatics only detracted from what was a nerve wracking time in American history.