Monday, March 13, 2023

Book Review: The Lost English Girl

By Jami Denison

The enormity and tragedy of World War II was so encompassing that most art about the period is centered around good people making heroic sacrifices to serve their country. In historical fiction author Julia Kelly’s latest novel, The Lost English Girl, the writer makes a different choice, introducing us to characters who are trapped in their circumstances and who put their own needs first. The result is a more soapy—but highly enjoyable—story about two people who grow into their own with the war as a backdrop. It’s a period-specific, but timeless, coming-of-age tale.

Viv Byrne is 18 years old, Catholic, and pregnant in 1935 Liverpool, England. Her boyfriend Joshua Levinson is the Jewish son of a tailor, and he’s agreed to do the right thing by Viv. But right after the registrar declares Viv and Joshua man and wife, Viv’s father pulls out his wallet. Offering Joshua more money than the young man has ever seen, Byrne pays him off to leave his pregnant wife behind. And Joshua, who’d always dreamed of playing his saxophone in New York City, takes the money and runs. Although he pledges to send for Viv and his child, Viv swears she never wants to see him again. She’s forced to return home with her henpecked father and the mother who treats her like a servant. 

Five years later, Viv’s daughter Maggie is the love of her life, and war is breathing down England’s neck. The family priest pressures Viv into evacuating Maggie to the countryside, with a respectable Catholic couple who aren’t able to have their own children. And Joshua, whose dreams of music stardom in New York never panned out, is prompted by the danger to return home and volunteer for the Royal Air Force. 

There’s a lot of good soapy drama with this setup—Maggie’s foster parents look down on Viv; Joshua has lingering regrets about abandoning his wife, and Viv takes a job that puts her on a collision course with Joshua’s family. Kelly weaves all these threads together expertly, but the war always takes a backseat to the characters. 

For the most part, all the characters are well-drawn, with clear motivations, strengths, and flaws. The only character I found puzzling was Viv’s mother, who never liked her daughter even before she got in trouble with a Jewish boy. With every other mother on the canvas devoted to her children (and Viv had an older sister whom her mother adored), this lack of love is never really explained or explored. 

The Lost English Girl is structurally sound, with some great plot twists. The book’s biggest strength is the inspiring character arc of its protagonist. Viv goes from being a victim to standing up to those who bullied her.  Not everyone can be a war hero. But everyone can become a hero of their own life. 

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

More by Julia Kelly:

Enjoyed this post? Never miss out on future posts by following us.

Listen to this book on Speechify!

No comments: