Louisa Young’s MY DEAR, I WANTED TO TELL YOU is a surprisingly good World War I historical with a goodly bit of romance. Young’s novel starts out with a bang, literally, as she describes what’s going on with an offensive in 1917 — the description is so good that you can feel the bombardment, how it affects everyone for tens if not hundreds of miles, yet how the soldiers have learned to ignore it. The scene is set in about a page and a half — really fine writing, that — then we shift to 1907, where future soldier Riley Purefoy has just met the love of his life, Nadine Waveney in the oddest of ways — by falling through the ice. Nadine helps to rescues him (he’s eleven, and Nadine is a year or two older), and that’s how the two of them meet. Because Riley’s parents, charitably, would be called lower-middle class and Nadine’s father is a noted orchestra conductor (upper-middle class or above), the two of them normally wouldn’t have met in a situation where they’d be equals, even as children. But an emergency trumps all else, which is one of the main themes of this novel.
We also meet Peter Locke and his naïve, beautiful wife Julia, along with Peter’s relative Rose, a nurse. Peter and Riley meet on the front lines, while Rose and Nadine meet later on due to Nadine taking up nursing because of the war. The way people interrelate during wartime who’d normally never meet also is another main theme of this novel — along with the fact that people suffer during war who never get close to the front lines, such as Julia, who must mature and can’t deal with it, or Nadine, who must defy her parents to become a nurse, then must defy them again to keep her nascent romance with Riley alive.
Nadine and Riley’s stories are the easiest to follow and understand, because once you meet the two of them — Nadine smart and sprightly, with a backbone of steel, and Riley, someone with interests in art, music, reading, and serving his country — you see why they’ve fallen for each other, and why they both want to do the right thing with each other. But war does strange things, especially when someone suffers a serious wound, as has Riley — and what Riley thinks is the right thing to do isn’t at all the same thing as Nadine would think if she realized the severity of Riley’s wound. Which is why communication is important; if you have it, nothing can come between you, but if you don’t, that’s when you start to struggle — which is yet another theme of this book.
As for the other couple, while Peter’s military service is admirable (he becomes a Captain, and is a good leader of men), how he handles the war in his off-hours is awful — he frequents brothels, as many soldiers (married or not) do alongside him, he drinks far too much, and he can’t seem to handle the fact that his wife, Julia, is pregnant worth a damn. While this is realistic — wars affect men in different ways, and most of them are far from pretty — it didn’t exactly make me root for Peter. But believe it or not, Julia’s behavior is even worse; this is a woman of the upper class who’s been told her entire life to be beautiful, decorative, and “seen but not heard.” She literally cannot deal with the changing circumstances of wartime; that there are shortages of food, fuel, clothing, etc., is something she just cannot comprehend. She does have a talent to get around these things — apparently her beautiful face and winsome manner works wonders — but she’s self-obsessed, vain, and mostly useless. And comparing her to Rose, who went immediately to become a nurse as soon as war was in the offing, and Nadine, who went to become a nurse once her beloved Riley signed up as she felt she must do her part — well, Julia doesn’t measure up. At all.
The structure of MY DEAR, I WANTED TO TELL YOU reminds me of D.H. Lawrence’s WOMEN IN LOVE in that we have a good couple, the ones who show the meaning of self-sacrifice and how love is often a force for positive transformation, and a bad couple — though Peter and Julia wouldn’t be “bad” in the same sense as Lawrence’s Gudrun and Gerald, as their self-destructive tendencies follow from the exigencies of war rather than huge personal failings that would show up no matter what the circumstances, they clearly are meant as “foils” to Riley and Nadine’s purer form of love. (At that, Riley’s last name of “Purefoy” is obviously no accident.)
Everything in MY DEAR, I WANTED TO TELL YOU is rendered well, without self-pity, and with a matter-of-fact completeness I liked a great deal. I rooted for Nadine and Riley, appreciated Rose’s fortitude, and kept hoping someone would pound some sense into Julia and Peter’s heads because goodness knows, they need it. I saw all of the characters, from major to minor, as real people with real, human failings and virtues, a major plus, and all of the characterization enhanced the overall story.
People suffer during wartime, which is something Ms. Young ably showed. But more to the point, Ms. Young pointed out that World War I, often overlooked by contemporary historians, was not only a devastating event with modern warfare, but was the first war where medical research advanced by leaps and bounds because it had to in order to treat the returning, severely injured soldiers. In that juxtaposition, Ms. Young has managed to make a point very few novelists or historians have ever made — and I thank her for it.
My recommendation is that you grab MY DEAR, I WANTED TO TELL YOU now, in hardback, because it’s worth the price. If you love historicals, realistic romances, cross-cultural conflict or all of these, you will truly appreciate Ms. Young’s novel. If you’re someone who’s been wondering why World War I has been so greatly neglected — well, this story will be right up your alley.
— reviewed by Barb