Monday, 7 April 2014

Book Review: Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson

Title: Somewhere in France
Author: Jennifer Robson
Genre: Historical Romance
Published: William Morrow & Company
Date Published: December 2013
Ranking: 4 out of 5 stars

Goodreads Summary:
Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford wants to travel the world, pursue a career, and marry for love. But in 1914, the stifling restrictions of aristocratic British society and her mother’s rigid expectations forbid Lily from following her heart. When war breaks out, the spirited young woman seizes her chance for independence. Defying her parents, she moves to London and eventually becomes an ambulance driver in the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps—an exciting and treacherous job that takes her close to the Western Front.

Assigned to a field hospital in France, Lily is reunited with Robert Fraser, her dear brother Edward’s best friend. The handsome Scottish surgeon has always encouraged Lily’s dreams. She doesn’t care that Robbie grew up in poverty—she yearns for their friendly affection to become something more. Lily is the most beautiful—and forbidden—woman Robbie has ever known. Fearful for her life, he’s determined to keep her safe, even if it means breaking her heart.

In a world divided by class, filled with uncertainty and death, can their hope for love survive. . . or will it become another casualty of this tragic war?

Why I read it:
I’ve read a lot of mediocre fantasy recently, and was craving something different. A book about an ambulance-driving WWI heroine seemed to fit the bill.

My Review:

Oh, this one was good. I loved almost everything about it – the setting, the characters, the central romance.

Lily (or the Lady Elizabeth) was a lovely heroine. The stifled aristocrat starts the novel full of good intentions but little agency – she’d like to make something of her life, but it seems unlikely she’d ever muster up the courage. How could she, with choices severely restricted not only by her gender, but also her class? But the war and her correspondence with Robbie, a surgeon with a working-class background, push her into action: first working as a clippie in London, later taking a position as an ambulance driver in France.

I’m not a historian, so I’ve no idea if Robson’s portrayal of English society was accurate or not. But it certainly made for a very different story. From glamorous Downton Abbey estates to the Western Front, the story is permeated with a sense of restrictive British propriety. Female soldiers are strictly segregated from the male troops. Men try not to swear around delicate, feminine ears, and worry about providing sweethearts with “the protection of their name.” This is made all the more ridiculous by the sheer horror of the surrounding war. Is it a cliché to say that Britain at this time really was another world? In any case, the all-pervasive sexism made me very glad I wasn’t born 100 years ago.

Somewhere in France also has a compelling plot (something I don’t often say about lit fic!). It’s tied up in two things – Lily’s dutiful quest to aid the war effort, and her romantic feelings towards Robbie. This romance comprised a large part of the story, and I’m frankly surprised I enjoyed it as much as I did. While there are a few too many mentions of Robbie’s deep blue eyes, their relationship was mainly reserved and sweet. It also always came second to the demands of the war. And those demands! Life in London, training in the WAAC, being posted at a field hospital… I found it endlessly fascinating. The only thing I had difficulty believing was how Lily frequently hid her background. Surely her accent would have given her away?!

Highly recommended, especially for fans of historical fiction.

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