Review: Next to Love by Ellen Feldman

Friday, December 9, 2011
Genre: general fiction, historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 352 (NetGalley ARC edition)
Published: Nov 2011
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

“War . . . next to love, has most captured the world’s imagination.”—Eric Partridge, British lexicographer, 1914
A story of love, war, loss, and the scars they leave, Next to Love follows the lives of three young women and their men during the years of World War II and its aftermath, beginning with the men going off to war and ending a generation later, when their children are on the cusp of their own adulthood.

Set in a small town in Massachusetts, the novel follows three childhood friends, Babe, Millie, and Grace, whose lives are unmoored when their men are called to duty. And yet the changes that are thrust upon them move them in directions they never dreamed possible—while their husbands and boyfriends are enduring their own transformations. In the decades that follow, the three friends lose their innocence, struggle to raise their children, and find meaning and love in unexpected places. And as they change, so does America—from a country in which people know their place in the social hierarchy to a world in which feminism, the Civil Rights movement, and technological innovations present new possibilities—and uncertainties. And yet Babe, Millie, and Grace remain bonded by their past, even as their children grow up and away and a new society rises from the ashes of the war.
Next to Love is a powerful novel, thankfully not in an obvious, over done and melodramatic way. No, Next to Love is a novel that manages to be sneakily insidious, grasping hold of your emotions almost before one realizes just how invested they are in the compelling story and just how powerful a writer Ellen Feldman proves herself to be in this WWII novel. I found it to be entirely emotional without being overwrought and constantly compelling. With three strong, though not always likeable, women main characters, author Ellen Feldman creates an enveloping tale of three best friends, dealing with life, love, and loss in one of the most desperate times in modern history. Their long story spans decades and is as complicated and humanly messy as it is poignant to read - with multiple points of view from various characters serving to create a rounded cast of characters with depth and personality.

Bernadette "Babe" was the closest I got to favorite character. I wish I could say that I loved and identified closely individually with the women of Next to Love but that is not the case. I was invest and compelled by their stories certainly, but there is a certain distance from all the characters of this story. Like with Babe, I wanted to love Grace and Millie but the removed third person perspective did me no favors with these three determined women. I certainly felt sympathy for each character at differing times (the scene at the pond stands out particularly in memory as very affecting) but I was never truly invested wholly. The present tense is used primarily and used effectively - everything that happens feels immediate and taut with emotions. I also enjoyed the authentic period details skillfully enmeshed into the larger narrative. Ms. Feldman is a smooth writer, with skill for depth and intimacy with resonating themes. I was impressed that the domestic life shown is just as compelling and riveting as the fighting - had it been written in the novel - would have been. This is an author that is remarkably adept, even with transitions in chronology others might stumble over. Ms. Feldman will occasionally flashback to a previous scene but it is always replayed from another perspective, always shedding more light about the plot.

While at first I was slightly bemused by this novel's choice of title, it becomes more appropriate the further one progresses and reads the book. I started thinking about it and I find the title "Next to Love" itself to be very interesting and very indicative of the novel itself, with the benefit of hindsight - the quote is about war and its impact upon people but the word itself is not written on the cover. Similarly, World War Two, the world-shattering event that this novel is based around, is never actually shown upon the page. All the experiences of the men that are known come from letters, secondhand accounts, various PTSDs and long-ago remembrances. All that happens upon the page is an individual character's personal reaction from the war, never a first-hand experience of war, yet it is that selfsame removed war that defines each person and the life they lead, even decades after the fighting ended. I will also say that the men's extended section of letters home was both my favorite part of the entire novel but wholly heartwrenching. Claude in particular stands out as a decent, kind humorous man  - my favorite of the three husbands. I suppose that's one of the elements of Next to Love makes the rest of the novel both so compelling and so sad: this intimate look into the minds of these men before the war illustrates better than anything how damaged they return - or don't.

Next to Love is primarily a book about complex relationships in life. War may take the stage as stirring man's imagination the most, but love is present is more than just marriage. This is a book about relationships between lovers, between friends, between parent and child, between the classes, and even between the races. What is so wonderful about this book is that each of those relationships is shown, for good or bad, by the large and varied cast and ably to boot: from Claude and Babe's struggle for commitment to the eventual distance between the three main ladies as they make different choices to the struggle for equality in a nation that fought for freedom in a far land, each examination into human nature works. Babe herself says something a long the lines of "I love these women but I may not like them right now," showing that though war might capture our species' imagination and be the crux of the novel and these women's entire lives, it is love that continues and endures.

I recommend this to any WWII historical fiction fan, or anyone looking for a true if harsh examination of war, love and friendship. Next to Love was far better than I had assumed and packed a lot of emotional punch - I'm not ashamed my eyes teared up at the end (and maybe one or two other places..) The ending is remarkably well done: totally appropriate, moving, and absolutely heart-breaking at the same time. Next to Love is intimate and engrossing: from D-Day to the Civil Rights moment, this evocative read and these three women will keep you reading.


  1. I loved your review of this. I've had it on my shelf for a while now, and your enthusiastic recommendation has convinced me to move it to the nightstand (that means it is closer to actually being read, lol).

  2. I was strangely hesitant to start this one - I think the title might have to do with that - but it's very rewarding once begun.
    And it sounds like you have a TBR pile that is large and continually growing. I know how that goes! But if you take the time for NtL, I think you'll enjoy it :)

  3. I'm so glad you liked NTL! It's one of the best books I've read this year.

  4. I did love it! I was surprised by how much actually. I didn't think I would from the first half but it got under my skin!
    Glad to see you enjoyed it as well!


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