Never judge a book by its cover, especially if it’s Ellen Feldman’s Next to Love, which at first glance would appear to be just another quick, chick-lit read; rest assured, it is not. Next to Love is a novel of four women (though only three rate chapters of their own), a small town in Massachusetts, and a world war that profoundly changes their lives beyond anything imagined. Feldman has written a reality check of Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation.
We follow three of the women, Babe, Grace and Millie, through their own chapters (subtitled by dates), giving each a distinct reaction to mutual dates and events in their lives. The fourth woman, fellow classmate Naomi, as a negro, is followed in the novel almost exactly as she would have been in real life; a woman seen only in a relationship of servitude to the others.
Feldman gives the sacrifices made by those at home a fresh and almost gritty depth. It is January, 1942 – the three women, with their husbands (in Babe’s case, her boyfriend), meet at Grace’s home for a last meal before the men, still in basic training, return to their units. It is an iconic scene. We have seen it before in films and read it in books, but not through this narrator’s eyes: “As soon as Babe walks in to Grace’s house that night, she smells the fear. It overpowers the aroma of roasting meat, and the women’s perfume, and the Christmas tree that lingers like a broken promise.”
Feldman’s chapters date from 1941 to 1964; Pearl Harbor to the Gulf of Tonkin. We experience each woman’s reactions to death, to shortages, to a society adapting to working mothers and women in pants, and we marvel at the author’s knack for pinpointing those feelings just below the surface. Both Grace and Millie are characters we recognize most easily because they remind us of our grandmothers, changing, but slowly and reluctantly.
It’s Babe’s voice and thoughts that raise warning flags. She takes a train to meet her boyfriend. They are to be married before he ships overseas. She is traveling alone. A young soldier who has been drinking offers to carry her suitcase. She declines his help, but he takes her bag anyway. “He is only a boy. Where has he picked up a man’s habit of not listening to what she says?”
Only one of the husbands returns, but neither he nor the family and friends he returns to are the same people as when he left. The changes have begun small, but grow. Negro soldiers return to a society not yet ready to acknowledge their service. Women give back jobs they have grown to like, soldiers are often unable let the war go (shell shock/post traumatic stress), and widows move forward as best they can. Grace, Millie, Babe, and even Naomi, struggle to maintain their friendship through their post-war personal realities, each different from the others. The changes that each of the women and their families experience become mirrors for the changes and issues facing the nation — civil rights, feminism, issues so close you can touch them.
“Next to Love” is tender and wise, without cliché or preachiness. It is a book as rich for men as for women, young or old.