Lovely War is a satisfying romance that will leave readers with much to think about.
Lovely War by Julie Berry. Viking, 2019, 451 pages.
Reading Level: Teen, ages 12-15
Recommended for: ages 15-up
There’s a war going on and a spirit of grim purpose in the air. But everyone in the swank hotel lobby pauses to watch an impossibly handsome, muscular man and a breathtakingly beautiful woman check in. An old bellhop escorts them to their room, but instead of leaving them to the delights of amour, he drops his disguise and then drops them into the bonds of a golden net. For the bellhop is actually Hephastion, god of the forge, and he’s just caught his wife Aphrodite with her lover Ares, god of war. But is that the whole story?
Aphrodite has another story to tell in her defense, a story that merges love and war, joy and suffering, cruelty and sacrifice. It begins in the throes of another war, 25 years earlier, when a pretty pianist and a newly-conscripted solider meet at a dance in Poplar (a suburb of London). Their attraction is instant and mutual, but he’s bound for the trenches, and what will become of it then? As Hazel and James are falling in love, Colette is trying to patch her life together after the Germans destroyed her family in their ruthless march through Belgium. Aubrey, a gifted black jazz pianist, is serving in the army as ditch-digger and concert musician, dealing with the same ignorant hatred from American bigots as he experienced back home. These four meet in France, where the fortunes of war—and the goddess of love—will determine their fate.
The premise sounds a bit contrived, and the intrusion of supernatural beings (Apollo and Hades also show up) sometimes feels intrusive. Imaginings of the afterlife aren’t to be taken as gospel, either. But here’s what is gospel: love is not about self-fulfillment, or soulmates, or safety. It’s about grace and, very often, suffering. Lovers suffer one another, if nothing else. Aphrodite has come to understand this: “Mortals aren’t meant to love perfection [like herself]. It disillusions and destroys them in the end.” And, much later: “Do you see? Why I envy them?” The war, always lurking in the background and often leaping savagely into the plot, adds a Homeric dimension that’s not accidental (see the epigraph). Against an epic background a deeply-felt, emotionally-wrenching, and surprisingly chaste romance plays out that is epic in its own way.
Cautions: Language (some profanity), war violence
Overall Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 4
- Artistic value: 5
Also by Julie Berry: The Passion of Dolssa