Louisa Young: My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You (2011) Literature and War Readalong September 2014

My Dear I Wanted To Tell You

Louisa Young’s novel My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You is one of the most surprising reads for me this year. After having been disappointed in Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room and Helen Dunmore’s The Lie, I was a little worried this would be the third in a series of underwhelming contemporary WWI novels. Well, it wasn’t. I loved this book and could hardly put it down. Not only because the story was so engaging and the characters so likable but because Louisa Young is a skillful storyteller with a very unique style. It’s not easy to tell a WWI story, including all the common themes, and manage to do that in a fresh and original way, but that’s just what Louisa Young did.

Riley Purefoy and Nadine Waveney meet when they are still small children. Although from very different backgrounds – he’s a poor working-class boy, she’s from a rich upper-class family – they become friends and their friendship turns into love eventually. They both share a passion for art and both want to become artists. Just before the war breaks out, Riley works as an assistant to an artist. He sees Nadine regularly and they know they are in love. However, when her parents find out, they are not thrilled and make Riley understand that he isn’t welcome in the Waveney’s home anymore. Feeling hurt and insulted, Riley impulsively joins the army and within a few weeks is sent to the trenches. Nadine on her side, becomes a nurse. They keep in contact and write to each other regularly, even meet during one of Riley’s leaves.

Thanks to influential people at home and thanks to Peter Locke, Riley’s commanding officer, who understands that Riley is very cultured and intelligent, Riley becomes an officer in spite of his background.

Peter Locke and his wife, Julia, are the second important couple in this novel. The book moves back and forth between these four characters.

The first half of the book is intense and beautiful and drew me in so much that when tragedy strikes it made me gasp. What followed wasn’t an easy read. It was tragic but so well done. There are numerous ways to write about facial mutilation and the way Louisa Young did it was outstanding. She combines the themes of body image, art, and beauty, and weaves them together in way that I found extremely thought-provoking. Peter’s wife, Julia, is obsessed with her beauty. She thinks she has nothing else to offer and, although not yet 30, already wants to undergo plastic surgery. Her thoughts and her anguish mirror the thoughts and the anguish of the mutilated men. I also liked that Louisa Young set the book in an artists’ milieu at the beginning because it underlines that we humans are extremely visual beings and while we might not all feel the same about beauty, we all feel the same about looks and mutilation. Making beauty, even more than mutilation, a main theme was a unique choice and even daring. Daring, because Louisa Young doesn’t spare us. She shows us what those mutilations looked like, what they did to a soldier. And how the society reacted. Even mothers screamed and fled at the sight of their disfigured sons.

The second part of the novel focusses almost entirely on the surgeries and the despair of the mutilated men and on the toll the war takes on the minds of those who survive intact.

One of the strengths of the book is its accuracy, another one is that Louisa Young makes us care about her characters. Not only about the main characters but about the minor characters as well. She captures a society and an event, and thus achieves what the best historical fiction should achieve— make us we feel we’ve been there too.

Although My Dear I Wanted to Tell You tells a horrific story, it’s an amazingly beautiful book, full of sentiment and rich descriptions. Louisa Young has already published the sequel (The Heroe’s Welcome) and more books centering on the same characters are still to come. As she said in an interview: “I think I may be writing the twentieth century, through these characters.” I’m eager to read more of her novels.

Other reviews

 Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

My Book Strings

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My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You is the ninth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the Fantasy novel Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey. Discussion starts on Friday 31 October, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.

39 thoughts on “Louisa Young: My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You (2011) Literature and War Readalong September 2014

  1. I’m glad you liked the book, especially because you were a little hesitant to put it on your list to begin with (if I remember correctly). I agree that Young is a skilled writer and some of her descriptions, especially of the war, packed a lot of punch. Unfortunately, the book overall didn’t work as well for me as it did for you. While I don’t intend to read The Heroes’ Welcome, I have already sampled a book Young has written about her grandmother Kathleen Scott and are very happy with that.

    • It was such a pleasant surprise. It was her writing style that really worked for me. I’d be interested to know why you didn’t like it as much.
      I read about that biography. It sounds interesting. I guess it’s the research for the biography that went into this book.

    • Oops, disregard parts of my comment please. I totally thought you’d read it a while ago. I’ll be getting my answer as soon as I read your review. Just adding it to my post.

  2. Glad to hear that you hit a WWI book you enjoyed. Two points on the book (which I haven’t read). I ‘d wonder if the class between Riley and Nadine could really be breached in those times. Would he really have been made an officer of is the class element there just for literary affect? Second: I think it’s interesting that plastic SX is brought into the novel in this way. We tend to think of the modern version of this, and not where it started.

    • I wasn’t even aware that there was plastic surgery at the time already. And it did exist before the war. Sounds as if it was quite drastic.
      I think there were a few who ascended the ranks but it was far from typical, I’d guess.
      I was really glad that I liked this so much.

  3. I haven’t read Louisa Young (and this one sounds interesting), but my book group is reading a couple of WW1 books at the mo: All Quiet on the Western Front and Toby’s Room. I’m a little worried that the Pat Barker will suffer in comparison to All Quiet, especially as you were disappointed by Toby’s Room. I think I may have missed your review at the time but will return to it once I’ve read the book.

  4. I daresay I shouldn’t really be here but I was interested by your comments. Re the class issue: Nadine’s family is not the traditonal posh family we hear so much about; her father is an orchestral conductor, his father was a bank manager, and her mother is French and Jewish. They are neither aristocratic nor snobbish – they are artistic, a bit bohemian, upper-middle class if anything. It would be perfectly likely that Nadine and Riley make friends in the park. Re promotion from the ranks, yes, it happened. Particularly battlefield promotions, when so many officers were being killed. Riley was by this time an educated person, and already rising beyond his background. The war really started to change how things were for women and for class mobility.
    Hope that helps – thanks for reading the book and I’m glad you liked it.

    • I’m glad you commented, Louisa. And, you are right to underline that they weren’t the traditional posh family but their reaction to Riley was quite traditional.
      I often see this type of promotion in movies but I haven’t done enough research, so I wasn’t sure how frequent it is. I suppose, the m ore officers were killed, the more it happened.

  5. I also approached this book with some trepidation but it was so well written and researched. I loved the way she used class to show how much things changed in England during the war and the opportunities it created for women like Rose. It rang with truth.

    I really cared about all the characters and am pleased there is a sequel. I guess that the author couldn’t bear to part company with them either.

    • I don’t know which edition you have but that’s what she said in the interview that’s included—she couldn’t part with them.
      After reading all the comments I feel I didn’t do the book enough justice. Of course, the way things chnaged for women is a major theme and Louisa Young’s grandmother was very important in the creation.
      I’m glad to hear you liked it as well.

  6. Wow, a comment from Louisa Young. Kudos. If she pops in again I just want to tell her I enjoyed her novel and owe her an apology for assuming she would not be able to write a book that appeals to combat addicts like myself.

    I have to admit that I came very close to not reading this book. Based on what I had read about its plot, I was absolutely sure I would not like it, but at the last minute I made a half-ass effort to find it so I could tell you I could not get it. Wouldn’t you know it was at the local library so I had no excuse. I am now glad it worked out this way because I really enjoyed it and my feelings pretty much mirror yours.

    I found the Riley and Nadine arc fascinating and really rooted for them. I was less enamored with Peter and Julia mainly because Julia was almost cartoonishly shallow. Not that I found her character unrealistic. I know she represented the reaction of some upper class women in the war. Not everyone reacted with strength like Rose (an outstanding character that balanced Julia). I know you wrote that the book is the story of two couples, but I found it was dominated by Riley/Nadine.

    I was very pleasantly surprised with the trench scenes. Young does a great job depicting soldier life and the combat is visceral. You know I can be hard on female authors for not understanding battle, but Young has impressed me more than any other. The hospital scenes were also strong.

    I loved her writing style. The use of italicized segments to show what the characters were thinking really worked. It made me wonder why more authors don’t use this method. It is something that books obviously have an advantage over movies. You can get inside the characters’ heads. I noticed she increased the use of this as the book moved on and we got to know the characters better. I also noted that her descriptions also tended to become more clipped. Some descriptions jettison sentence structure to appropriately wrench guts. This was very effective in describing the effects of war and brings it home to readers sitting quietly and safely in their comfortable homes.

    I noticed you mentioned about the uniqueness of the passages about the facial reconstruction but I could swear we had another readalong that delved into that too. I’ll let you think of what book.

    The ending was satisfying, but some might find it contrived. I’m glad I did not know there was a sequel because I was left wondering until near the end whether it would be depressing like the war.

    • It’s always nice when an author visits.
      I’m so glad you liked it as well and glad I thought you would. After Toby’s Room and The Lie my hopes were not that high. As soon as I started that changed though.
      It’s wonderfully well done. I was also afraid the love story would be corny but it wasn’t. This isn’t a soppy romance, it’s a real love story.
      I loved her writing as well. The italicized parts work very well.
      I felt it was about two couples, but I can see how you think it wasn’t. I’m preytt sure we’ll see more of Julia and she’ll tunr into an interesting character.
      You are right, Toby’s Room contains similar passages on facial reconstruction. I thought it was unique how Louisa Young did it because it was even more visceral. We were not spared.

    • Please tell me why women writers would have more trouble with battle scenes than male writers ? Is there something special on the Y chromosome for that skill?

    • Yes, it is. I only wished I’d managed to write a more careful review, including more aspects.😦
      I felt a bit out of it yesterda
      It’s not an easy read because facial mutilations are so horrific but I loved it.
      I hope you’ll like it as well.

  7. I’m glad the third book turned out to be such a good read for you. I don’t think I’d like to read about disfigurement at the moment, but I shall put this on the list for later. It must have been horrific back in the day, not to have the plastic surgery techniques and materials that are available now. I’ve seen pictures of men who suffered facial trauma in war and it’s grim. Were people less accepting of difference/deformity back then, I wonder? It would be incredibly traumatic if your mother screamed and ran away when she saw you. How sad. How stupid war is.

    • I was glad as well. I think you’d like the art angle. Louisa Young’s grandmother was a sculptor who helped the doctors.
      War is so, so stupid. I can imagine that it took a lot, not to run and scream, but it’s awful to think it happened.
      It’s not a book you can read at any time. It’s a shocker in places.

  8. I’m interested in this one. I think there’s been an exhibition about facial mutilations during WWI somewhere in France.

    Did they do plastic surgery for convenience at the time? (I don’t know how to say it in English, I mean plastic surgery just for beauty not after an accident or a mutilation)

    PS: how cool the author popped in. I like it when they comment.

    • THey did plastic surgery for convenience, as you call it. I liked that she juxtaposed this. Julia isn’t 30 yet and already thinks she has to look younger, while there are men whose whole faces are blown off. I still felt some sympathy for her. If you really think that’s the only thing people like about you, it would be frightening to lose it.
      I was glad she popped in. It’s nice.
      She writes really well and since you don’t share Guy’s aversion to historical novels, you might like it.

  9. I saw on Danielle’s site that she was really enjoying this one and am delighted to know that you did too. I remember seeing this in the shops but never thought to consider it. It does sound like a really interesting book with a very clever use of its situation and preoccupations – the artistic milieu sounds like a wonderful device. I can’t believe Kevin actually liked it – I don’t think I’ve ever seen him like one before!

    • It just really stood out for me and I was very glad. The artistic milieu worked particularly well for me and she has a lot to say about the chnages the war brought for women.
      It’s not for the squeamish though.
      Funny enough, I knew Kevin would like it. He has liked a few novels but – sadly – not many by women. Yeah well

  10. Beautiful review, Caroline. This looks like a beautiful and heartbreaking book. It made me think of a novel I read when I was a teenager – ‘Eagle in the Sky’ by Wilbur Smith. I remember in that book the main two characters, David and Debra, were in love with each other and David’s face gets mutilated in the war (I can’t remember which war) and he hides from Debra and when she finally gets to see his face – well that is a heartbreaking scene. I don’t read much of Wilbur Smith now, but that scene has stayed with me. I think I will like Louisa Young’s book. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • Thanks, Vishy, I hope you will like it. I’ve never read Wilbur Smith but the premise sounds similar. This book is heartbreaking as well.
      She’s a pretty amazing writer. The prose feels fresh at all times. I’m not necessarily too keen on historical novels but when they are done this well, I love them.
      I’d be really interesred to hear your thoughts.

  11. Thanks for linking to my review! It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I remember being fascinated by the plastic surgery storyline, to see what war did to those men alongside Julia’s vanity.

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