I don’t usually post images of ARC (advanced reading copies) covers, but I just thought the ARC cover of Louisa Young’s My Dear I Wanted to Tell You unbelievably poignant. It depicts the fill-in-the-blanks postcards provided to injured soldiers at hospitals in World War I to send to their loved ones. The pain, loss, and love encapsulated in this single, impersonal document touched me, as did the book. I found the scene where this card is filled out literally gut-wrenching, in my opinion, the best scene in the book.
My Dear deals with a difficult topic – World War I – and Young doesn’t shy away from the gory details. In one scene, Julia, a nurse, talks to her cousin-in-law and non-nurse Rose about a patient whose face had been burned off. Julia describes in excruciating detail exactly how the doctor grafted the patient a new face using skin from his chest. It was horrific, which I think is Young’s point. It’s like Young presents us with snapshots of the war taken with a soldier’s point-and-shoot camera: this is war; deal with it.
The strength of My Dear lies in the characters, and with such an emotional subject, its impact is best felt when Young writes with a bit of detachment. Take for example the following passage, about a young man signing up to enlist: “He went next door to fill in forms. …Length of service: one year or duration of war. Duration of war, of course. He didn’t want to spend a whole year in the army.”
Conversely then, the impact is lessened for me whenever Young lapses into wordiness. The narrator and the characters editorialize at times, and in trying to be descriptive, grandiose and emotional, just ends up being long-winded. On one hand, there is a bit of nostalgia associated with this style of writing, which at times reminds me of some Victorian novels. On the other hand, I sometimes found it too much telling rather than showing, and on a personal level, I found myself detaching emotionally from the story at these points.
That being said, it was really the characters and their stories that stuck with me. They were all wonderfully fleshed out, and I found myself pulling for them. Young even manages to make Rose, seemingly a vain, silly character too delicate to help out in war efforts, sympathetic. Rose’s primary characteristic is great physical beauty, and while this has served her well before the war, it is Julia’s more practical set of skills (intelligence, the ability to dress wounds without fainting) that are valued. Rose’s husband Peter is off to fight in the war, and Rose obsesses about properly performing her duties as a soldier’s wife. Young’s account of her struggle to be useful, a “private war,” so to speak, turns what could’ve been an annoying character into a complex, textured human being. At times, Rose was even more sympathetic than Julia, the purported heroine who nurses soldiers back to health.
The most interesting plot point to me though was the love story between working class Riley Purefoy and socialite Nadine Waveney. They are in love, but are kept apart first by Nadine’s mother, then later by the war. Their letters to each other are beautiful and touching — long and emotional, with almost old-fashioned language, yet sincere rather than maudlin. Quite simply, I believed in their love, and I wanted them to be happy together.
With their old-fashioned language, Young again takes what could’ve been annoying and makes it work somehow. For example, when it comes to sex, both Nadine and Riley are quite prudish, unable to utter the words and relegated to blushes and ellipses. Normally, I’d be annoyed at such a potentially cutesy move. Yet, here, I found their shyness endearing; I found their romance endearing.
My Dear is definitely not a happy book. But it is a hopeful one, filled with very human characters. Even the death of a secondary character affected me. They’re that real.