War romances have a certain intensity to them that draws in audiences. But what happens once the war is over? How do people wrestle with what they have experienced and how can they adjust back to civilian life? That’s our theme this month in TBR Challenge. Caz read a novel taking on the aftermath of World War I, while Lynn went a little further back in time. Her pick features soldiers adjusting to civilian life after Waterloo.
Lost & Found by Liv Rancourt
Set in Paris shortly after the end of World War One, Lost & Found is the story of a traumatised young American doctor who returns to Paris to search for his best friend, who has been missing since before war ended. It’s the compelling story of one man’s search for so much more than an absent friend and expertly intertwines that search with a slow-burn, antagonists-to-lovers romance. The setting of post-war Paris is so perfectly captured that the city feels like a character in its own right, and the pervasive sense of melancholy adds poignancy without being overwhelming.
Benjamin Holm, a Harvard-educated doctor, and his childhood friend Elias Simmons joined up to fight before the US entered the war and travelled to the front together. But as far as Ben can recall, he returned home alone after the Armistice, and now, a year later, he’s back in Paris intent on finding Elias, whom he hasn’t seen since… he can’t quite recall. He’s easily confiused and his memory is impaired; he knows there are things he can’t remember and is frustrated by that, but the one thing he’s clear on is that he needs to find Elias. He has nothing to go on really, just a vague recollection that they’d agreed to meet up there after the war; knowing that Elias liked to paint, Ben decides to ask around the artistic community and to scour the city until he finds him. To that end, he wanders the streets, showing a battered photo of his friend to all and sundry in the hope someone will have seen him.
Ben is renting a small apartment in Montmartre from Madame Beatrice, a genial lady who takes more than a passing interest in her tenants and who suggests that another of them, Louis Donadieu – Ben’s downstairs neighbour – might be able to help in Ben’s search. Ben is surprised – whenever he’s encountered the handsome and enigmatic Donadieu he’s been prickly and rather abrupt – but sure enough, the next morning, he approaches Ben over breakfast and offers his help. Mme. Beatrice clearly has excellent powers of persuasion.
As the two men spend time together walking around the city, sharing meals and just talking. they begin to know and understand each other, learning about their losses and fears. Ben is glad to have Louis with him, to have the assistance of someone who knows the city so well, but there’s also something else there, an attraction that’s clear to the reader in the way Ben admires Louis’ grace and dark good looks, but which Ben ruthlessly squashes. It’s just as clear that the attraction is mutual, and that Louis is more than a little bit jealous of the loyaty and affection Ben feels for his missing friend. But Ben’s memories continue to prove elusive, and it emerges that some of those gaps are very specific; whenever he tries to recall the last time he saw Elias, how they parted, even how the war ended – nothing. And the more he tries to remember about his relationship with Elias, the more it eludes him. It’s confusing and frustrating – and terrifying.
Ben’s amnesia and PTSD are extremely well conveyed, and there’s a very real sense that the single-mindedness of his search for Elias is his sub-conscious’ way of preventing himself from thinking about things he doesn’t want to dwell on. Clearly, there was something more between Ben and Elias than friendship, but that Ben has closed his mind to that possibility – which is perhaps not all that surprising given the time period – although the author shows, in subtle ways, that Ben is more aware of his sexual orientation than he admits even to himself. She does a terrific job when it comes to showing Ben’s sense of unease, the disconectedness he feels from his past and his uncertainty about his future. His frustration at not being able to remember, and later, his horror when bits of memory begin to bleed through, are palpable, and the truth of what actually happened is both terrible and heartbreaking.
Louis comes across as arrogant to start with and he’s very blunt in a way that’s actually good for Ben, because he doesn’t coddle him or hold back from making Ben think about things he doesn’t want to think about. He’s prickly but sweet and vulnerable, too, having suffered his share of loss, albeit in different ways. He had been a rising star in the ballet world until he contracted polio – which almost killed him and ended what could have been a glittering career. Even though we never get into his head – Ben’s is the sole PoV – we’re able to feel his grief and sadness at the loss, and can see that his aloofness and insistence that “men like us seldom take things seriously” are a form of self-protection, walls behind which to hide the true extent of his feelings to Ben.
Their slow-burn romance is nicely done; a tentative friendship underpinned with unacknowledged – on Ben’s part at least – attraction that evolves into more. The constant presence of Elias in the background doesn’t impinge on it or turn it into a love triangle (thankfully!); it serves as a catalyst – for Ben and Louis to spend time together and for Ben to start to rediscover his sexuality – and adds tension to the story in a way that feels natural and convincing.
While I had a few small niggles – I’m sorry, but I can never read the word “organ” without laughing (I even wrote a blog a few years back about awful euphemisms in romance novels) – I only had one major issue with the book, which is the sometimes stilted, overly formal manner Ben has of expressing himself. That sort of formaility is in keeping with the time period, it’s true, but Ben even thinks formally when he’s in his own head, and when that happened I found it difficult to feel a connection with him; he talks/thinks about himself in a way that feels as though he’s talking or thinking about someone else. This put him at something of a remove, which, for a first person protagonist we’re supposed to sympathise with, made for an odd choice.
That’s my only real reservation, however. Lost & Found is heartfelt and bittersweet, a lovely and ultimately uplifting story of love, healing and acceptance.
Grade: B Sensuality: Warm
Buy it at Amazon or your local independent retailer
Chivalrous Captain, Rebel Mistress by Diane Gaston
When I saw this month’s “After the War” prompt, I immediately thought of Diane Gaston’s Three Soldiers trilogy. I really enjoyed the first book, Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady, and I had been looking for an excuse to continue. This trilogy focuses on three soldiers who met in the aftermath of Badajoz, and follows them as they adjust back to civilian life after their experiences in the Napoleonic Wars.
Chivalrous Captain, Rebel Mistress is the second book in the trilogy, and focuses on Captain Allan Landon. As the younger son of a landed family, he took on a career in the army. The main action of the book opens at Waterloo, and just as the fighting is about the begin, Allan discovers a lost young boy near the battlefield. The young boy turns out to be a young woman named Marian Pallant. Marian had snuck out with her best friend as the friend went to see her sweetheart before the battle, and then became lost after falling off their horse.
Allan takes Marian to a chateau where he thinks she will be safe. These opening chapters are actually quite exciting as the author provides detail on the battle and we see Marian helping to evacuate people to safety. I loved that she could show Marian as levelheaded and good in a crisis, while also still making it clear that she’s still a naïve, untrained upper-class girl. Marian has empathy and good instincts, but she doesn’t suddenly morph into a superhero.
The romance which blooms after the war is anything but smooth for the protagonists, but I did enjoy the story. The two end up courting very soon after the war ends, though there are plenty of obstacles in their path. Some come from Allan’s military career since the cessation of hostilities doesn’t mean the end of his service assignments, and then there is the son of Marian’s guardian. This cousin isn’t an evil supervillain, but he is a feckless troublemaker.
I did mark this book down a tad because Marian did grate on my nerves a bit in some of the later chapters. As we could tell in the earlier portion of the book, she is naïve and sheltered, but wants to live up to her ideals. Unfortunately there are times when the common sense I admired earlier seems to desert her, and that became rather frustrating. Also, she has an annoying tendency to call Allan “Captain” all through the book rather than simply using his name.
However, there is also a lot to like in this novel. I really like the heroes in this trilogy. They’re not rakes or alpha-holes and yet their strength of character is made evident on the page. Not only do Allan and his two fellow officers seem like decent people, but they are leaders without putting others down or making them inferior.
I also really enjoyed the book’s sense of time and place. The events of Waterloo and the unrest in England following the return of unemployed soldiers after the Napoleonic Wars all play important roles in the story. Marian and Allan clearly would not have been the people that they were but for the historical events that took place around them. However, even though there is a lot of history in this novel, it is still quite clearly a romantic story.
While I did enjoy the first book in this trilogy a bit more, Chivalrous Captain, Rebel Mistress is still a good solid read. For those who enjoy reading about Regency life beyond the ballrooms, I think you will enjoy this trilogy very much.
CW: While not graphic, there are scenes of wartime violence as well as discussion of an off-page attempted rape.
Grade: B Sensuality: Warm