It’s 1939 and Mary, a young socialite, is determined to shock her blueblood political family by volunteering for the war effort. She is assigned as a teacher to children who were evacuated from London and have been rejected by the countryside because they are infirm, mentally disabled, or—like Mary’s favorite student, Zachary—have colored skin.
Tom, an education administrator, is distraught when his best friend, Alastair, enlists. Alastair, an art restorer, has always seemed far removed from the violent life to which he has now condemned himself. But Tom finds distraction in Mary, first as her employer and then as their relationship quickly develops in the emotionally charged times. When Mary meets Alastair, the three are drawn into a tragic love triangle and—while war escalates and bombs begin falling around them—further into a new world unlike any they’ve ever known. (Summary via Goodreads.com)
If you haven’t heard about this book yet, well, you’ve probably not been paying attention. Everyone in the book world has been talking about Everyone Brave is Forgiven since it came out last year. After (finally) reading it, I can see why.
Like many summer blockbuster novels, the writing is beautiful. Cleave does a wonderful job of introducing sympathetic but deeply flawed characters–Mary is not a very good teacher, and she fights her family, her best friend, and even herself throughout most of the book for reasons that are often selfish (mild *spoiler alert*: Mary’s addiction to morphine made the second half of the book difficult for me to read); Tom can be wishy-washy and uncommitted; and Alistair’s time in Malta turns him into someone who’s willing to make poor, sometimes deadly choices.
The book focuses on the effects of war on individuals, particularly those on the home front. From the evacuations of school children to the minstrel shows that continue despite the bombings to time spent in subpar air raid shelters, we see every horrible detail of life in London during WWII. Alistair provides us with a look into military life, but that is by no means the focus of the story.
A lot of reviewers focus on the “witty banter” of the characters, and it’s true that the dialogue is just as sharply written as the narrative. Still, the author never lets you forget all the horrible things that happen. Children die, soldiers succumb to infection and starvation, drug addiction and racism abound. (On that note, I found this post by the author about his choice to include the n-word in his book really interesting.)
I enjoyed this book, although not as much as many other book reviewers did. Maybe it’s because my reading life has already been saturated with books about WWII–that’s why I put off reading it as long as I did–but for whatever reason, Everyone Brave is Forgiven just didn’t capture me. I’m glad that I read it, but I don’t foresee reading it again.
Rating: Good but Forgettable