Louisa Young’s My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You is September’s choice for the Literature and War Readalong hosted by Caroline. According to the Washington Post, My Dear is a “moving tale of men and women tested to their limits by World War I.” That is certainly true, but I have to admit that I am a bit less impressed than the Washington Post was.
The book tells the stories of five people: working-class Riley Purefoy is in love with upper-class Nadine Waverly and volunteers for the war after an unfortunate night of drinking. His commanding officer is wealthy Peter Locke, who leaves behind his socialite wife Julia and his no-nonsense cousin Rose. There are a good number of other characters crowding the first half of the novel, but in the second half, the book finally focuses on the story of its main protagonists.
Because of all the people who appear in the beginning of the book, there are also a lot of topics that are brought up: art, beauty, class, coming-of-age, and young love. Again, I found it all a little muddled, and I wasn’t quite sure what kind of story I was reading. War story? Romance? Social critique? Again, it wasn’t until the second half that the story settled down and started to flow smoothly.
On the upside, I liked the language of the book; I really enjoyed Young’s style of writing. She mixes her narration with stream of consciousness, and I was impressed by how authentic that felt. Her descriptions of the war are very moving:
“One night he saw Captain Harper flying across the sky like a whirling starfish before shattering into a flaming shell crater, and he put the sight in that special part of his brain he would never got to again, fed it through the greedy slot in the forever unopenable door. His thoughts jumped like fleas, like drops of water on a hot plate, uncatchable, inexplicable.”
The turning point of the novel, for me, was Riley’s injury. (This is not a spoiler; it is in the blurb on the back of the book.) This is when the story finally finds the angle that makes it unique and starts to focus. It was fascinating to read about the rehabilitation process of the wounded, because it was tied to the medical advances that were made at the time. Several people mentioned in this part of the book are real, and I was not surprised to read that Young has personal ties to some of them.
While Riley, Nadine, and Rose become well-rounded characters—moving towards an expected ending—Peter and Julie stay rather two-dimensional. I can see how Julie can be used as Nadine’s opposite. Both were upper-class women before the war. Yet while one profits from the social change brought on by the war, the other reels from the sudden uselessness of “looking pretty.” I wish this aspect had been either better developed or left out completely. As it is, it is part of what muddles the book.
Louisa Young has recently published A Heroes’ Welcome, a follow-up to My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You. It is not yet widely available in the US, which has made the decision whether or not to read it for me. I will skip it and instead try A Great Task of Happiness: The Life of Kathleen Scott. This is Young’s book about her grandmother Kathleen Scott, a sculptor who created body parts used in (facial) reconstruction of wounded soldiers. She seems to have been quite a fascinating woman.