When enjoying a book a lot comes down to understanding the characters. I don’t even need to like them (in fact sometimes it makes for better reading if I don’t) but I have to believe in their actions. Maybe even more so when they’re women–because really, who has any idea why men do what they do?! Sadly, two of January’s new releases were about women where I didn’t believe the choices they made and it impacted my feelings about both of the novels as a whole.
The Dressmaker's War by Mary Chamberlain
Published by Random House
Publication date: January 5th 2016
Ada is a highly skilled young dressmaker living in London in 1940. Beautiful, smart and with dreams of owning in her own shop someday she is also prone to making horrifically bad choices. Improbably bad choices, as in falling in love with a Hungarian count and letting him take her to Belgium in 1941, where she thinks they’ll get married. The reality is he deserts her when the Nazis arrive and she spends the rest of the war pretending to be a nun. Later, she’s removed from the convent and sent to a home outside of Dachau where she spends the rest of the war living as a prisoner in a small room, making clothes for the wives of key Nazi officials. This is The Dressmaker’s War by Mary Chamberlain.
After Ada’s second egregious mistake in judgment I thought I would not be able continue with The Dressmaker’s War, but there was something about this speed read of a novel that kept me going. Chamberlain writes of fabric and the design and making of clothes in such intricate and loving detail that it touched my tiny fashionista heart and kept me reading, but, ultimately when Ada fights back, again in a way that defies logic, the novel lost me. While Ada’s story does not hold together, Chamberlain’s premise—that of people caught in what becomes enemy territory when war is declared—is an interesting one not often seen in fiction. What is done to survive and what happens after the war were the most compelling parts of Ada’s story and enough to carry The Dressmaker’s War. The extra, fancy embellishments take away from a good simple design.
The Longest Night by Andria Williams
Published by Random House
Publication date: January 12th 2016
Set in Idaho Falls in the late 1950s The Longest Night is Andria Williams’s novel about Army life, nuclear power, and the marriage dynamic—a heady trifecta of subject material. Natalie is married to Paul, a military man who works as part of a team maintaining a small nuclear reactor prototype. They have two young daughters and Natalie is not finding Army wife life to be what she expected. For his part, Paul is dismayed by the lack of concern from his superiors over the decay of the reactor and the potential ramifications. Add to that his commander drinks on the job and hits on Natalie and his temper finally blows, leading him to be temporarily reassigned for six months to another reactor site in the Artic Circle. His timing is not great—Nat is pregnant with their third child.
Williams unleashes a tidal wave of issues and twists in The Longest Night. The novel’s chapters are split between Nat and Paul and each provide their perspective on military life. For Nat it is a lot of unspoken rules and for Paul it is the code of conduct that makes questioning higher-ups impossible and reporting them dangerous. In the same way that Nat finds Army etiquette difficult to figure out, I found her actions to be confusing. There is no question of her intelligence, but Williams makes her behavior flighty and foolish. Loneliness in a spouse left behind, especially throughout a pregnancy with two small children, is understandable, but Nat comes off as almost willfully ignorant about her actions and fails to engender much sympathy. This, plus the not-unexpected conclusion, meant that The Longest Night did not hold my attention.