Often my reading list is dictated not by mere whim but by the selections of others. Since I enjoy the social aspects of reading either with friends or in book clubs, I will often read a book I might not have otherwise chosen. And that's a good thing.
All too often, I'm the one assigning the texts, so turn about is fair play. I know that no matter how hard I try to choose a book that is suitable for a wide readership, someone is going to hate it.
Sometimes the readings align in an interesting way. This semester for the literature class I've been teaching as an adjunct for the community college, I was assigned a novel to teach, Maisie Dobbs, a novel set during and after World War I in England. Around the same time, my daytime book club has been reading a World War II novel, The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, and my evening book club is reading Chris Cleaves' novel (also World War II London) Everyone Brave Is Forgiven.
My attitude toward Maisie Dobbs could have been better. It felt too lightweight for me, and I longed for a little more literary richness. The title character is likeable, even admirable, a girl born into lower working class who advances first through reading. When the wealthy, albeit liberated, woman for whom she works discovers her in the family library reading in the wee hours before her work begins, the woman gives her the breaks that make advancement possible. The book moves from the present, with Maisie working as a detective and using skills she learned from her mentor, to the past as she leaves college to volunteer during the war.
I used one of my favorite strategies in my class after the students finished the novel, with the students leading the discussion as I silently observed. They brought the reading to life, not only having a lively discussion of the plot but going on, with no prompting from me, to discuss the writer's choices.
I haven't met to discuss the two book club selections yet, but as I read The Lilac Girls, I struggled. Wells follows three main characters: Caroline, a privileged socialite living in New York and working with the French Embassy before the United States enters the second world war; Kasia, a young Polish girl arrested and sent to Ravensbruck for her involvement in the underground; and Herta, a German doctor who works on some of the horrific medical experiments on the female prisoners at Ravensbruck.
The story was so full of descriptive details and historical information that I suspected the author had heavily researched the period and couldn't let go of any of it. My biggest problem, though, was that I disliked the characters. Certainly, it was easy not to like Herta, but even Caroline, the do-gooder, drove me crazy with her vacuous observations, and especially her pining away for her married French lover. It's hard to sympathize with a girl who feels a little let down to learn that her lover's wife didn't actually die in the concentration camps after all. Even Kasia, certainly a victim, had such a bitterness that she hurt others as much as she hurt herself.
At the end of the book, though, the author fills in the reader on how she wrote the book, based on real characters. Caroline was real, actually admirable; her French lover was a fictional plot device. Herta was real--and she was actually released early before she completed her twenty-year sentence, thanks in part to some political maneuvering by the U.S. government. Kasia and her sister, though invented characters, was based on actual sisters held at Ravensbruck. I'm glad she told me her background into the book. It made me a little more forgiving of what I might otherwise have found annoying. She also made me want to read more about these Ravensbruck girls and about the real Caroline Ferriday.
Of the three stories of women during wartime, my favorite was Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleaves. I fell in love with his writing when I discovered Little Bee, with one of the most engaging narrators ever. In this book, the protagonist Mary North is also a young woman of privilege, but against her parents' wishes, she enlists soon after the war begins, but is surprised to be assigned to teach school children. When her students are evacuated, her approach to her students leads to her being sent back to London. There she meets her first lover Tom, head of the local school board and not at all in her social league. The plot also follows Alistair, Tom's roommate who does go to war.
Cleaves manages to develop characters that are both flawed and sympathetic. They have a self-awareness that adds to their charm and believability. The author also builds some of the most suspenseful scenes with a small cast of characters, not only on the battlefield, but back in London during the bombings. This is a story I can't wait to talk about at book club--and it's one I can't wait to recommend to anyone who loves a good story well told.