Ellen Feldman’s superb Next to Love follows three women through the 1940s and 50s as they embark upon adulthood, tracking their ups and downs, their tragedies and successes, and learning to live in the aftermath of war and in a society full of upheaval and change.
The story was initially inspired by that of the Bedford Boys, in which nineteen men from a single Virginia town died on D-Day: “No other town in America,” Feldman tells us in her acknowledgments, “suffered a greater one-day loss.” Thus, in Next to Love, on July 17 1944, Babe, working for Western Union, receives sixteen telegrams in one morning. Sixteen telegrams that must be delivered to houses and families around her town; sixteen telegrams that will change their lives irrevocably. And two of them are destined for her two closest friends, Grace and Millie.
Each of the three women copes with their loss in their own individual way. Grace fills a wall with photographs of her Charlie; he was her one true love and now he is gone; she is utterly lost, bereft, life without Charlie a grey fog. Millie takes all the parts of Pete that she has left - his photos, his letters - seals them in a box and stores it in the attic, locking away the hurt; then, much to the talk of the town, remarries barely a year later. Babe’s husband Claude survives and returns; he is a broken man, traumatised by combat, but she cannot complain, because at least her husband came back.
Feldman writes with grace and clarity, bringing the three women, each so different, alive - I have sympathy and sorrow for them, want to fight for them, find myself irritated by them and their willingness to lie down and be walked over by societal ideals; I envy them the love of their husbands, living and dead, and I want to shout at them to wake up, to fight, to see the world around them. As the years build up, their lives are touched by anti-Semitism, segregation, the construction of the modern consumer society and, perhaps most importantly (to them, at least), the role of women. Feldman reminds us, the readers, of the importance and significance of this post-war period in building the society we know today. She touches quietly on each of these issues, not making a massive deal of them, yet they form powerful themes running through the book. Rather than focussing heavily on a single issue, her ‘skipping’ sort of treatment of them reflects the real life experience these women are likely to have had, the way the issues skirt, for the most part, on the edge of their consciousness, touching them and affecting them, but in ways that they are barely aware - in ways that only now, with hindsight, can we see with true importance.
There is Millie, whose new husband Al is Jewish. Despite the atrocities uncovered at the end of the war, anti-Semitism is still rife, and we learn of the Jewish jokes that permeate American society, G.I.s particularly, and the way in which Millie’s son Jack is bullied for being a ‘Jewboy’. These are innocuous to the women, but affect Al and Jack deeply. There is Babe, frowned upon by the others when she chooses to go out and work despite having a husband to provide for her. And there is Naomi, Grace’s housekeeper. They sat next to each other in school, but now Grace is not Grace but Mrs. Gooding, and when Naomi’s son dares to visit the local swimming hole, all of the ‘good white folk’ get out of the water as fast as they can.
And as the years go by, the friendship that these three women share changes as well. In the opening chapters, the same day and events are repeated from each of three women’s perspectives, but as time goes by the events told by each the friends become more disparate, more individual, which seems to reflect the disparate elements that have entered their friendship. As they each chock up incidents and feelings and worries that they cannot share with one another, the things they cannot talk about become bigger and more significant.
Full of love and loss, hope and grief, Next to Love is a really superb read that I highly recommend. “War... next to love, has most captured the world’s imagination,” wrote lexicographer and author Eric Partridge in 1914. This book has them both: as well as WWII, the girls are at war with themselves, and with their husbands, and the various parts of society are at war with each other. And, next to love there is grief and there is loss. But then, there is always somewhere or something to love next.