July 8, 2016

Reading : World War II Novels

So I've been writing about running a lot. I've also been reading a lot, which I find to be a nice balance to physical activity.  While running I've experienced some amazing views of our city, and it's a special kind of happiness to feel that this iconic bridge I've seen so often can give anew each time. It makes me feel connected to every other person who has ever seen it. Reading also gives me a unique sense of connectivity to other people, and I think this sentiment is at the core of most books.

I waited for several months for Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale to be available from the library, and was looking forward to it since it has hundreds of thousands of reviews on Goodreads and everyone has been raving about it.  And I can see why--I flew through it, wanting to see how the love story unravels, on edge for the inevitable breaking of people at the hands of the Nazis. Set in France, it tells the story of two semi-estranged sisters.  One is living a conventional married life that is upheaved when her husband is forced to join the French army against the Germans, and the other is an impulsive fireball who joins the resistance movement and functions as the book's soapbox for the undervalued role of women in the war.

A lot of books about World War II are about how people become connected and disconnected by the war, and in general I'm drawn to books by the way they connect readers to other people and to the world. In The Nightingale the war initially polarizes the sisters but in the midst of suffering, they begin to develop parallels even as they live apart.

I liked reading the book, but overall it was more of a page-turner than something I connected to deeply. I think it played on predictable emotional responses, the writing functioned more for plot than anything beneath the surface, and if it weren't for the heavy subject matter I wouldn't have thought about it much after finishing it. And what did linger was less the book's narrative and characters, and more the idea of war novels which led me to thinking about World War II fiction I've enjoyed more.  

Another popular World War II book I've read, enjoyed but didn't like as much as the rave reviews was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Everyone thought this book was amazing--my brother, one of my best friends from med school, one of my climbing friends.  So I think it may just not have been able to live up to the high expectatations, but it didn't stand out for me.

This book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is again about how war connects people who are otherwise far apart. It centers around the separate lives of a French girl and a German boy, developing their growth from youth to adulthood when their stories then meet.  The narrative of their youth was more interesting than their older lives, which I've found in other books too.  Maybe because when things aren't yet sharply defined, there's more room to play with the malleability of feeling and perception.

I thought it was better than The Nightingale--richer in character and it didn't rely on as much showy and shocking to elicit emotion.  But to a lesser degree, it still felt like more an entertaining page-turner than something layered to be revisited after reading. I think that both books relied on the gravity and expanse of the subject.  It definitely takes skills to write a book that tackles different angles of something complex like World War II, and makes these accessible, and I think both books did that.

I don't like being critical when I personally wouldn't know how to do it better, but I do like sharing books that do. My personal favorite World War II fiction of the last few years is Julie Orringer's The Invisible Bridge.  It's much less known than the others (800 Amazon reviews versus 26,000 for the The Nightingale and 24,000 for All the Light), but one I know will linger for me for many years.  I first discovered Julie Orringer during college when she wrote her first book, a collection of short stories called How to Breathe Underwater, which I highly, highly recommend. The Invisible Bridge is her second book, and very different in style and scope, but just as good.

Like so many others, this book follows the parallel stories of family members who are separated by the war--in this case, three Hungarian-Jewish brothers.  One of the brothers comes to Paris as an architecture student, falls in love with an older woman, and they build a life together.  This life comes unbound as the Germans takes over Europe, and as the woman's dark history unravels with the progressive trajectory of war.  A lot of war novels pitch pre-war against post-war, a love story against the hatred of the Nazis, coming-of-age against survivalist adulthood.  Often one feels more sincere and fleshed out than the other, but in The Invisible Bridge, both feel deeply real. It uses language and the narrative of the story to build power, instead of relying on just the plot or its backdrop of war.  And no one feels like a stock character used deliberately to make you feel something; instead they are people who Julie Orringer is invested in exploring, like she's getting to know them as she's sharing them with us.

And so I love The Invisible Bridge for nurturing the root of why we have stories, for not just giving voice to what might otherwise go unheard, but for driving us to listen.

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