Through a happy accident, ten-year-old, "common-as-muck" Riley Purefoy gets taken in by the aristocratic, artistic Waveney family. Through them, he gets a position in, and basically grows up in, the home of Sir Alfred, an older artist who needs help with his studio. He also grows up with the bright and practical Nadine, the Waveney's young daughter. However, in a fit of boyish pique after their relationship is forcefully halted, Riley joins the army and serves in the trenches of World War I Belgium and France. As a "good soldier, decent bloke", and because of his knowledge of the arts, Riley attracts the attention of his commanding officer, Major Peter Locke. The story explores the tentative hold of love and relationship in the midst of war as it shifts between and among Riley and Nadine, Peter and his wife Julia, and Peter's sister Rose.
I was surprised to read the tepid and even negative reviews already posted. Each to his/her own, I suppose, but I was entranced from the first few pages of the book. I didn't want to stop for so much as a breath. Or actually, sometimes I simply couldn't come up for air. I found the characters engaging, understandable, human and likable. Ms. Young understands her characters, their motivations, their limitations and their foibles, so even when they behave in unlikeable ways, I still found myself liking them as humans caught in inhuman suffering.
In my opinion, what some are describing as a lack of character development is actually part of Ms. Young's point. She is writing about a society on the verge of change - from the Victorian period to the post-World War I era. In the Victorian period, social roles were tightly defined - the role of the gentleman, for instance, or, even more constraining, the role of the beautiful, delicate aristocratic lady whose sole permitted useful function is to be beautiful for her husband.
In that light, Julia's vanity and shallowness are perfectly understandable - her beauty is all she has (and, to her credit, she knows it). The entire focus of the country is supporting the war effort, everyone contributing his or her bit. But what does a beautiful, delicate noblewoman have to contribute to a war effort? Her beauty and "perfection" is not appreciated (openly, anyway) by the only one for whom it is intended - indeed, he cannot appreciate it considering the ugliness of the horror he is surrounded by and which he plays a role in conducting, as he is an officer responsible for leading other men into the horror.
As the older characters in the book, Mr. and Mrs. Waveney represent the old guard, the old ways. The have always existed in a world of appearances, and will continue to do so even as that world fades away.
Julia and Peter represent the bridge between the old and the new orders. They struggle between the appearances of their social position and the reality of the horrors that war has exposed. They have no prior experience of genuineness - of doing anything other than keeping a stiff upper lip. They struggle to maintain their "love", but such love is based on positions and appearances, each fulfilling their roles. But Peter's service in the war, seeing common men fight and die (and die horribly) for their country, and encountering a love of arts in common-as-muck Riley tears a hole in Peter's foundation, rips the façade from all appearances. Will Peter and Julia succeed and adapt to a world without pretense? Will they find a genuine connection to pull them through? Well, you'll have to read the book and decide for yourself.
Incidentally, Rose is also party if this transitional generation, but her adaptation is, rather oddly, made easier by her lack of standard beauty. She has never been constrained by the role of the beautiful aristocrat because she's never been beautiful. All her life this has been a curse and a hindrance, but she now sees that it is a blessing. She has always had to find a different role for herself, and now that role is "useful".
As the youngest characters, Riley and Nadine represent the new order, the successful transition. Having been born "common-as-muck", and having learned the role of the officer and the gentleman later in life, he has always been more fluid in his role, able to be who and what he needs to be for the situation, although not necessarily always what he might want to be. Hence, he is just as adaptable in the trenches as he was in Sir Alfred's studio. Having been raised around Riley, and having watched him learn his role and develop a genuine love of beauty and the arts, Nadine is quick to question - even scorn - the English class system. She, more than Riley, sees through the phoniness and pretense of it all and insists on honesty. "Are you going to be English about this?: she demands of Riley when he is embarrassed by talking of sexual matters. Honesty, as Riley finally learns, is the only way to face reality and, hence, he and Nadine just might make it work despite - or maybe because of - their class differences.
Speaking of faces, I love the use of the face as a symbol, particularly in the parallel development of Riley's and Julia's character. It is difficult to say much without spoiling the story, but it is rich with meaning.
Ms. Young's prose is spare, but evocative. Her tone is pitch perfect as she describes gestures and subtle communication between the characters and the thoughts that fly through their minds. Ms. Young does not beat her readers with a hammer to tell us exactly what she's talking about; she trusts us to take a hint. And she can describe a subtle interaction between characters with just a few well-chosen words, which would have taken Victorian writers whole pages to elaborate.
It also appears that Ms. Young has done her homework. Her descriptions of both aristocratic life and life in the trenches and the nursing hospitals rings true, and I felt like I was there. Furthermore, I'm very impressed with her knowledge of WWI era reconstructive surgery and her ability to convey it in clinical yet understandable language.
Finally, while this book is clearly about World War I, it is just as clearly about more than that, just as "The Crucible" is about more than just the Salem Witch Trials. Ms. Young is also writing to and about her own world. Then, as now, seemingly half the world was struggling with how to behave "normally" while the other half are busy slaughtering each other. How do we make sense when there is no sense to be made? "We" must defeat "them" before they invade our own soil and do unspeakable things, but, as Riley muses, how different are "they" really? How can we trust our leaders about "them", when our leaders are the ones leading us walking slowly into gunfire?
There are many other aspects of this book I'd love to discuss (and gush about), but I'll stop here and simply invite you to read it for yourself. Notwithstanding the other reviews, I truly enjoyed this book and recommend it highly. Give it a chance - at 300 rather brisk pages, you have little to lose and much to gain.