I am not as enamored of After the War is Over (January 2015), Jennifer Robson’s second novel, as I am by its prequel, Somewhere in France. Please don’t misunderstand. I thoroughly enjoyed reading both of them, set against a graphically detailed background during World War I and its aftermath in England and France. Robson, a talented historian, fluoresces her work with plot lines and characters distinctly reminiscent of Downton Abbey’s first two seasons. However, the main protagonist of After the War is Over is not so much a true-to life character as an over-the-top composite caricature of the young women who, in real life, put their lives aside to aid the war effort while their countrymen fought and died in the muddy, bloodied trenches of France.
Prior to the war Charlotte Brown, adopted by the senior canon of Wells Cathedral and his wife, is governess to Elizabeth “Lilly” Newton-Ashford (the main protagonist of Somewhere in France), the overly protected daughter of Lord and Lady Cumberland. During her four-year tenure as a “mere servant,” Charlotte guides Lilly into a somewhat independent womanhood and becomes attached to Edward, Lilly’s older brother, who gaily goes off to fight in France, leaving Charlotte and Lilly to “keep the home fires burning.” During the duration, Charlotte empathetically nurses officers afflicted with “shell shock” (post-traumatic stress syndrome). After the war, she happily returns to her position in Liverpool as assistant to Eleanor Rathbone, a real-life historical figure, charitably assisting with great aplomb the poor and destitute. During all of this, Charlotte, an ersatz housemother, also mentors and counsels her fellow boarders while she bravely comes to grips with the real essence of her own life and stoically struggles to find the meaning of true love.
While Charlotte and her unselfish, seemingly flawless traits are to be admired, her heroics are often just too much to take; a paragon of virtue – the author’s epitome of all that is good and virtuous. She is, even if a fictional character, almost too good to be true. This is especially evident during Robson’s occasional sub-plot pandering diatribes couched in descriptive passages and dialogue about women’s rights, the plight of returning soldiers, strikes, and civil unrest. While quite well-written, these passages crowd and cramp an otherwise elegant coming-of-age story set during the turbulent era of The Great War.
Despite these flaws, Robson is a capable and imaginative author, interjecting solid historical facts throughout her narrative. She adds crisp sparks of realism that turn her well-told story into a solid epical, complex conflagration. Overlooking a few really jarring plot discrepancies and the nearly predictable rosy outcome, this, along with its prequel, is a great adjunct novel to Downton Abbey while waiting to watch its fifth season.
With this literary offering, Robson has definitely made a name for herself in the genre of historical romance. Hoping that her third novel, set in Paris, is even better than her first two, I eagerly look forward to reading it.
Reviewed by June J. McInerney
Check out our Book Addict Inspiration on Pinterest!