Shannon Parsons of HarperCollins Canada provided a wonderful service when she sent me an advance reader’s copy of the elegantly written World War I romantic novel, My Dear I Wanted To Tell You by Louisa Young.
In mid-September I suffered a massive muscle spasm attack in my lower back and ended up in bed for a week. The pain was intense whenever I had to get up and move around but when I lay down in bed I was much more comfortable so I ended up reading three books that week. For a couple of days I was totally immersed and transported to the vivid and emotional world of Riley Purefoy & Nadine Waveney and Peter & Julia Locke. Spellbound by their story, I was impressed by the author’s willingness to use four letter words where they were warranted and to allow her protagonists to traverse the spectrum of human emotions with authenticity. I was truly sad when I finished the book because I didn’t want it to end. Ms. Young has crafted a classic novel that will undoubtedly win several awards as well as linger with you long after the final page has been turned.
In 1907 London, eleven-year-old Riley meets the daughter of an eminent orchestral conductor whose dark-haired beauty and artistic family captivates him. Nadine becomes his best friend and he becomes the protégé of her father’s painter friend, Sir Alfred. Riley’s own dark good looks make him a desirable subject so he sits for Sir Alfred and his life soon changes forever.
Years pass and Riley realizes that although he has fallen in love with Nadine, he is from a different class and would never be approved as her suitor. One night, after a drunken, homoerotic incident with another friend of Sir Alfred, the horrified Riley impulsively enlists in the army in an attempt to avoid being further humiliated.
I’m not usually a fan of stories set during war because I’m such a pacifist and don’t believe in war for any reason, but England and France during World War I certainly provide a gripping setting for this saga of love, loss, betrayal and redemption.
At the same time Riley and his commanding officer, Peter Locke, fight for England in the muddy trenches of Ypres, Peter’s beautiful but rather vapid and immature wife, Julia, and his plain but intelligent cousin Rose impatiently await his return. Julia goes through the motions of making sure the house is in perfect condition and keeps herself as impeccably groomed as possible because she never knows when her husband might be granted leave for a few days and come home to her. However, the war has changed Peter who has become a hard-drinking, morose man who would rather seek comfort in the arms of a prostitute than his wife. As time goes on, the spurned Julia believes that perhaps with a few cosmetic enhancements she will once again win her husband’s affections. While Julia fritters away her time worrying about her looks, Rose becomes a nurse who finds herself working with a ground-breaking plastic surgeon.
This novel depicts the horrors of war and primitive plastic surgery in dramatic detail and at the same time portrays the turmoil faced by the women who are left behind when their men go to battle. The characters are so well-developed that you have no trouble investing in them or having empathy for them. Riley stands out above the rest and you will shed tears for both him and Nadine. Julia and Peter are slightly less sympathetic characters but no less interesting and while Rose had the potential to be a truly fascinating individual, she seemed to have been written with a bit less passion than the others.
My Dear I Wanted To Tell You’s title was adapted from a standard letter that was given to soldiers who were wounded and admitted to hospital. In a cruel twist of fate, Riley is seriously injured and Rose becomes his nurse and confidante as he can no longer believe that Nadine, who has become his lover, could possibly accept what has become of him. What he doesn’t know is that there are no limits to Nadine’s love.
Young, who has had an intriguing life so far with even more mesmerizing ancestry (her grandmother was the widow of Captain Scott, of the doomed Antarctic expedition, and she and her family grew up in the house owned by Peter Pan’s J.M. Barrie), is the author of the best-selling Lionboy trilogy for children. According to Louisa Young’s website, My Dear I Wanted To Tell You
is the first of a trilogy observing – through the descendents of Peter, Julia, Riley, Nadine, Rose and others – ways in which the experiences of that massively traumatic period and its aftermath shaped the following generations: all of us who grew up in the twentieth century.
If that is the case, I’ll be waiting with anticipation for the next volume.