You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye,
Who cheer when soldier lads march by
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
This excerpt from a World War I poem by Siegfried Sassoon might well serve as an epigraph for Ellen Feldman’s World War II novel, Next to Love. Feldman describes what happens to three young couples with intertwined lives—the three wives have been fast friends since kindergarten—when war interrupts their promises and dreams. The reader first meets them right after the Pearl Harbor attack. War is breaking out and decisions must be made. Should the men volunteer to fight? Should they marry immediately nor not? Should they have children now or later? And what should the women do while the men are overseas? The novel follows the course of the war until some—not all—of the men return home. Then Next to Love traces how the war continues to impact the three families’ post-war lives for another generation. Parents, children, brothers and sisters, new loves, old traumas, further complications, “the hell where youth and laughter go.”
Despite the underlying and insistent message that war—and its repercussions—is hell, Next to Love actually is not a downer to read. Rather, it is a mature and clear-eyed look at how real men and women cope with unspeakable horrors, not only on the battlefront but on the home front as well. The stories of Millie and Grace and Babe might apply equally to Vietnam veterans and their families and to all those affected by the last two decades of Middle Eastern conflict. In this respect, Next to Love is an important book, especially to those of us who have escaped the urgencies war can impose on families for generations. We need to know what those families may be suffering and how, for decades, they are coping. We need to feel, at least vicariously, the emotional trauma they are confronting.
Despite growing up together, the three women are quite different in backgrounds and in temperament. The same is true of the men in their lives. Millie marries Pete, a happy-go-lucky guy who always lands on his feet, and she is equally resilient. Together, they look toward the future and never look back. Grace marries Georgie, scion of banker-capitalist King Gooding and heir to all his father’s ambitions. King’s impact is an integral part of the aftermath of war. Babe marries Claude, an ordinary couple with middle-class hopes and fears. In particular, subsequent political events have an impact on these two. When “the hell where youth and laughter go” detonates all their lives, everyone reacts quite differently, with quite different results. But over and over again, the women never lose sight of each other and never stop supporting each other’s families. Despite deaths and nervous breakdowns and a host of other dire events, their friendships draw them into a future that ultimately will obscure the losses of youth and laughter, the hellishness of the past. Let me repeat, Next to Love is an important book for all of us to read and wonder about and ponder. -A.R.