Next to Love by Ellen Feldman
If I could jump into a time machine and travel back in time to any decade or time-period, it would have to be the 1940s-1950s. Even with the country in turmoil because of World War II, that time period has managed to fascinate me. Whether it’s the clothes, the simpler way of living, or a number of other things, I can’t be sure. All I know is that when I get the chance to read a book set during that time, like Next to Love by Ellen Feldman, I enjoy it thoroughly.
Next to Love begins right as America is entering World War II, and follows the lives of three friends, Babe, Grace, and Millie, and a few of their family members. The novel covers their lives from 1940 up through 1964, and each girl’s story is told one at a time for a certain time period. In order to best explain the story, I’ll break each girl’s up into their own.
Babe: Babe is from the bad part of town, south of Sixth Street, and has been looked down on by her friends’ parents for years. When she meets and falls in love with Claude, she can’t believe he wants to be with her. They aren’t married when Claude is shipped off to training camp for war, as he’s enlisted in the National Guard in an effort to not be drafted, but after a few weeks of being gone, he writes to her that he wants her to come meet him at camp so they can be wed. She hops on a train and heads toward him, though her journey is anything but fun. After she moves back to her home town, she takes a job at the Western Union receiving telegrams, and is the first person to know about all the deaths from the war.
Grace: Grace and Charlie are happily married and have a daughter, Amy. Charlie’s father, King, is a banker and one of the wealthiest men in town. As a wedding gift, he bought Grace and Charlie a big, beautiful home. Grace feels complete having her husband, daughter, and home to take care of, and supports King’s suggestion that Charlie join the National Guard so he doesn’t end up drafted. When Charlie is called to war, Grace has a hard time dealing with his absence. She’s so dedicated to him, though, that she writes him a letter every single night, and waits patiently to hear from him.
Millie: By the time 1940 comes around, Millie has already lived through the death of her mother and father, and doesn’t worry about the fate of her husband, Peter. Fate’s already put her through enough, she thinks, and she’s paid her dues. She’s so sure of it that when Peter is called into war, she eventually follows him to camp in an effort to get pregnant.
Each woman’s story progresses from here, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. However, I will say that this is set during a war, so characters will die. The story structure Feldman developed for Next to Love is the perfect way to see how each woman deals with life both during and after the war, and is able to show a wide range of feelings and emotions that were actually happening during that time period.
I felt most connected to Babe, and would say she’s the main character of the novel. Her story is always told first, and it’s her point of view that both begins and ends the novel. Additionally, Babe’s story is the one to which I most connected. I may look back on the 1940s and 1950s now and think they are awesome, but my vision is blurred by extensive rights that have been given to women and minorities as well as a more liberal society. I think if I were to ever actually get to go back in time, I would behave most like Babe.
This was a quick read for me, and I think the story structure also played a role in that, as well. Once you’ve finished Babe’s chunk of the story in a certain number of years, you can’t possibly put the book down until you’ve gotten Grace and Millie’s, too. Then once you get through theirs, and realize it’s way past your bedtime, you’ll still feel the need to continue because you have to know where they go from there.
Needless to say, I would highly recommend putting Next to Love on your shelves, and even giving it prominent placement. I’ve never read anything else by Feldman, and I’m not sure how strong her fan base is, but this is a must-read for anyone who not only likes the time period but who likes a novel that spans years but still leaves you wanting more.