Published by Headline on Feb 13 2014
Damaged and beautiful, they were the generation who lost so much and became 'spare brides'. The richly compelling and emotional new novel from Sunday Times bestselling author Adele Parks is the powerful story of four extraordinary women left to pick up the pieces of their lives, in the scarred, glamorous and endlessly fascinating post-First World War era.
New Year's Eve, 1920. The Great War is over and it's a new decade of glamorous promise. But a generation of men and women who survived the extreme trauma and tragedy will never be the same.
With countless men lost, it seems that only wealth and beauty will secure a husband from the few who returned, but lonely Beatrice has neither attribute. Ava has both, although she sees marriage as a restrictive cage after the freedom war allowed. Sarah paid the war's ultimate price: her husband's life. Lydia should be grateful that her own husband's desk job kept him safe, but she sees only his cowardice.
A chance encounter for one of these women with a striking yet haunted officer changes everything. In a world altered beyond recognition, where not all scars are visible, this damaged and beautiful group must grasp any happiness they can find - whatever the cost
You know those books that you feel were just written for you. Like you made a list of everything you could want in a book and an author was wonderful enough to somehow accommodate you?
SPARE BRIDES was a “me” book. Adele Parks should really have included a subtitle “For Danielle” because this book had everything I look for in historical fiction. Impeccably researched, wonderful character development and fabulous writing, it was a joy to read from start to finish.
I am a huge war history geek, I wrote my thesis on the effects of WWI on the psyche of Irish writers and their literature so the time period is one I adore to read about both in fiction and non-fiction. Examinations on Post-War life are a particular love of mine and Spare Brides hit the mark with its compelling story about the fragile state of a society literally shell-shocked.
Spare Brides tells the story of four upper-class women whose fortunes after the war are very different. Sarah, widowed and left raising two children, fights loneliness every day. Her sister Beatrice, never the beauty must now come to terms with the fact that the lack of men and her less than stellar financial situation means she’ll be left on the shelf. Ava, beautiful and vivacious, for her “single” is a state of great opportunity and the independence gained from working while the men were away fighting is not something to be relinquished easily and Lydia, beautiful, rich and spared the grief of losing a husband in the trenches she has it all so why when the captivating and brutish Edgar Trent walks into her life is she willing to risk what every women around her craves.
I have never read Adele Parks before and I heard this was her first foray into historical fiction so I didn’t know what to expect. Parks manages to capture beautifully the delicate balance between the desperation to recapture the past’s former glory and familiarity and the encroaching modernity with the wants and desire for change. The Old World is losing its grip and the social lines are blurring.
From the first pages I was caught up in this world of glamour and sparkle tinged with sadness and despair. Park’s four heroines are equally well developed and grabbed my sympathy and attention for their individual plights.
Sarah, patient and kind has been dealt the rawest of deals. She was fortunate to have married for love, a rare commodity in a culture focused on marrying well and losing her husband, finds herself a single mother, aching for the company, passion and security she knows a man can offer.
Beatrice, eager and intelligent had her precious chance at a successful season “out” ripped away by the declaration of war. Now the men who have returned to England are broken, their souls and limbs left behind in the fields of France. Those who managed to escape relatively unscathed have their pick of the “spare brides” and Beatrice is cast aside, too chubby, too forgettable. I really sympathised with Bea, a girl who would have thrived in the halls of University who is forced to be humiliated at every social outing as the old ways win out for the time being.
Ava, the epitome of the post war modern flapper, teetering on the edge of scandal at all time refuses to find herself in such a hopeless state as Beatrice. Determined to stand and be counted, her story was fascinating. The hopes and dreams of single women today, the opportunities that lie before them were founded here in the steely ambition of women like Ava so many years ago.
Lydia, the true heroine of the story was the one who invoked the widest spectrum of emotions in me, from sympathy to hatred, love to screaming frustration. Her recklessness at a time when her peers scrambled for the safety of the familiar was compelling to read. Her cold accusation to her husband of shirking his responsibilities by accepting a desk job during the war effort and her belief that being a war widow would have been more acceptable than the shame of being on the arm of a healthy man is unbearable to witness at times. Her subsequent relationship with Edgar was equal parts admirable and horrifying and her journey was ultimately unforgettable.
Parks has a wonderful ability to create characters that are unfailingly sympathetic and her thoughtful examination on women, their status, their relationships and their hidden desires is staggering.
This is a period of time when an ever present cloud of dismay and guilt crossed social lines that no-one was able to avoid.
The unspoken calculation of what everyone has lost and gained in the war and the resentment seeping out through thinly veiled insults disguised as concern. The desire to forget yet the unwillingness or perhaps incapability to do so is a recurring theme. One cannot help but feel for these women, these “spare brides”. Caught between the fleeing past and the charging future, their present is desperately sad. The painful knowledge that their purpose in life; to be a wife and mother has been lost and watching men broken by war try desperately to come to terms with the images of horror and brutality forever playing behind their eyes.
This book was by far my favourite historical fiction book in recent years. Capturing the struggle of women and giving a voice to those who were part of a generation filled with uncertainty and change at too fast a pace is a story that can be appreciated by any generation and will be just as important and relevant to the daughters and grand-daughters that come after. Simply stunning.