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Adele Parks is a very successful novelist, whose books have so far been set in the modern day and have followed the lives of different women. She has made her first step into historical fiction with this new novel, Spare Brides, published by Headline this month.
Parks is certainly not the kind of author I would normally read, and so I was a little apprehensive when I was asked to review her new book. The marketing and descriptions I read made me think it might just be another bodice-ripper. However I was pleasantly surprised by Parks’ ability to deal with a historical setting and the book is an absorbing read.
The novel is set in Britain in the aftermath of the First World War, as a group of different women come to terms with the losses they have suffered. The story revolves around Lydia, a beautiful but vain woman who struggles with her marriage, specifically her inability to conceive a child and her husband’s lack of participation in active combat in the war.
Her story is set against three other women: Sarah, whose husband was killed in the war, Beatrice, a single woman who is left with little money or marriage prospects, Cecily, whose husband lost both legs and an arm at Passchendaele, and Ava, a socialite who indulges in the luxuries and vices of the era of the “bright young things”.
Lydia meets a young man, fresh from war, and embarks on an affair that changes the way she thinks about the war and her own happiness. The shock of the affair also alters her friends’ lives as they too reassess the roles they have been left with after the war.
The novel is, above all, a romance. It tells the story of lovers working out how to deal with their relationship when it so profoundly affects those around them. It could therefore be set in any era. However what the post-war setting adds to the narrative is a profound sense of guilt, pity and concern felt by the characters about one another to different degrees. How can one justify uprooting a relationship when so many have had theirs destroyed by war? How does one come to terms with a society in which the roles of men and women are so radically altered? I felt that the creation of this atmosphere was the most successful aspect of Parks’ book.
Nonetheless the love story dominates the narrative so intensely that I felt there were opportunities missed for the exploration of more interesting historical areas. Of course, if you want a romance , this one is certainly very engaging, but it would not be something I would go out of my way to read. There are plenty of elements that mark the narrative out as a standard romance: descriptions of silk garments felt against naked skin, sexual descriptions which I personally find unnecessary and of course the inevitable love-at-first-sight scene. Again I want to make clear that if romance is what you want, this has it all, but personally I consider these kinds of tropes superfluous.
While the historical detail appears to me to be legitimate, there are points where it feels a little clunky: ‘like every fashionable woman she wanted to wear her hair cropped at the ear, as she favoured close-fitting cloche hats’. Some of the characters seem at times a little archetypal: the damaged womanizing war hero and the gorgeous promiscuous flapper. However this problem is corrected over the course of the narrative as the characters gain depth and the stereotypes are questioned.
If you have an interest in the First World War and its social effects at home, and you don’t mind a bit of romance, this novel is worth a read. It does conjure up successfully the atmosphere of the era and deals with some of the key problems faced by women after the war. And if you want a love story set against a thought-provoking and nostalgic historical backdrop, this book is definitely for you.
Spare Brides will be published by Headline on 13th February 2014 and can be found on Amazon.