Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Book Review: The Woman at the Front

By Jami Denison

Author Lecia Cornwall is well-known for her Highlander and Regency romances. But inspired by her grandfather’s World War I recollections, her latest release takes readers away from the pageantry of royalty and mires them in the mud and blood of war. With a hefty dose of sexism and classism as well, The Woman at the Front is a compelling book about a compelling character. 

Inspired by her doctor father, Eleanor Atherton graduated at the top of her medical class in 1917. But in her tiny English village, no one takes her seriously as a doctor—not even her father or her twin brother Edward. But when a local Countess’s son is hurt at the front, she presses Eleanor into going to war-torn France to take care of Louis and bring him home. Defying her family, Eleanor heads to the aid station where Louis is recovering. But since female doctors are not permitted at the front (female nurses and ambulance drivers are), and Eleanor is not in the military, things get complicated for her very quickly. Can the handsome Scottish stretcher-bearer help her find her way?

I’ve always enjoyed stories about female trailblazers, and I can’t imagine the courage it takes to become a doctor in a world where sex roles are so strongly and clearly defined. Add a war to that equation – a war at a time when modern medicine was in its infancy but warfare, including gas, was growing in its cruelty--and Eleanor certainly has the deck stacked against her. What I liked the most about this character is that she’s not exceptionally fearless or forthright. She’s hurt by her family’s rejection and doubtful about her own abilities. That makes it even more satisfying to watch her come into her own. 

I also appreciated the scenes that demonstrated the difference between the British upper classes and the men who were dying in the trenches. While recuperating at the aid station, Louis is visited by Ladies who’d rather be drinking champagne and shopping in Paris than supporting the soldiers. The contrast is illustrative, and seemed to hint at issues beyond the scope of the book.

Still, there were times that Cornwall’s romance roots showed. Many of the characters were one-dimensional; their arcs as it came to Eleanor were unsurprising. There were multiple POVs but not multiple storylines; all these characters’ thoughts revolved around Eleanor. And the love scenes seemed too romantic for a war novel for my taste. Romance is the world’s most popular genre, and I wish I could write it, so this note is not a criticism of the genre. But the “hearts and flowers” of the love-sick gentlemen didn’t mesh too well with the blood and mud of the war. 

Cornwall pulls off a nice trick at the end: Most traditional romances tie up things with a nice “happily ever after” bow. She does this, but also skips ahead to preview World War II. It’s a prescient reminder that while a war may end, war never does.  

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I liked this book better than The Women by Hannah whose book has gotten far more publicity.