(This post originally appeared in Persephone Magazine.)
Set during World War I and promising an aristocratic feminist awakening, I wanted to like Somewhere in France a lot more than I did. Jennifer Robson’s story of Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford and Doctor Robert Fraser goes on too long for what is at stake, but it still has its redeeming qualities.
Lady Elizabeth — Lilly, to most everyone who knows her — has left her comfortable lifestyle in order to join the war effort. Her parents more or less disown her for her “improper” behavior — like learning how to drive and for wanting a job, instead of just settling down with an important man and having his children. Eventually, she earns an ambulance driving gig with the Women’s Auxiliary Corps.
This entire time, she’s been corresponding with her brother Edward’s friend, surgeon Robert Fraser. Robert and Lilly once met at a party and hit it off, and of course both are convinced that the other one doesn’t feel as strongly as they do. Their friendly dance back and forth, a veiled romance, begins while Robert is on the Western Front. Eventually, the two are working in the same area. The camp has yet to receive a direct hit from German forces, but the fighting is very nearby.
Lilly pulled to a stop; even before she had switched off the engine, the canvas corners at the back of the ambulance were being pulled aside. By the time she and Constance had helped the soldier sitting between them to descend, all three stretchers had been removed from the ambulance; a flurry of activity surrounded each of the occupants.
“We’d best be off again, ladies,” Private Gillespie said. “We’ve got to move out all those men we saw, back there at the ADS, before we dare take a break. I’ll bring around the third ambulance so you have some extra help in the morning.”
With that, they were off again. Another load of stretcher cases, another mutely stuttering Tommy squashed into the front compartment, and then the journey home.
Lilly somewhat reminded me of Lady Sybil from Downton Abbey, especially with the pining for a man who grew up poor. Had Somewhere in France been about a couple who are a team, fighting together in this horrible war, I might’ve been more on board.
Unfortunately, the “will they or won’t they get it together?” drags on and on and on because no one is fully speaking their mind, and Robert has this “I must protect this precious flower” idea that is not as torturous as he thinks it is. While, yes, they are not allowed to openly be a couple because of camp rules, he makes it sound like only he can write the rules of this relationship. In a book all about independence and bucking social conventions, it’s silly.
Staying alive is what is at stake here, and both of them chose to be there, so the relationship problems that are presented are more frustrating than interesting. I mean,settle down, man. She brought herself here — you didn’t “make” her. I know surgeons have a savior complex, but come on.
If the relationship had occurred differently and if the pacing were tightened, I think I would have liked this book quite a bit. I’ve been reading and watching a lot of WWI and WWII content set in England lately, and I am interested for reasons I don’t yet fully know. Robson has a great love for historical subject matter, and it shows. Her insights into period details are very, very good, and the descriptions of the hospital and the war feel true, even coming from semi-naive Lilly. There’s an excellent book floating around in here, but as it stands, Somewhere in France is merely adequate.
Full Disclosure: William Morrow Books sent me this as an advanced review copy, so my pull quote may differ slightly from the finished edition. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.