Historical fiction is one of my “go-to’s” when I need something to read, and fiction about WWI is usually grim but compelling. Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy is brilliant, as is the classic All Quiet on the Western Front. WWI lit and films bring home the terrifying reality of trench warfare and its horrifying psychological impact on soldiers who endured it. Somewhere in France looked interesting to me because it centers on the experiences of a young woman, an ambulance driver at the front. Author Jennifer Robson is the daughter of an historian and I had high hopes for this novel but I confess myself rather disappointed. The historical part of the novel is okay-ish, but the fictional story leaves much to be desired in both character and plot development.
Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford, aka Lilly Ashford, is the beautiful, wealthy, privileged daughter of an earl and countess. Unlike her older sisters, she is independent minded and ‘modern’ in her way of thinking about class and women. Her allies include her older brother Edward and former governess/current friend Charlotte. Lilly’s parents are traditional, stodgy and harsh, especially toward Edward’s friend Robbie, a doctor from a poor background who attracts Lilly’s attention. When WWI breaks out, Lilly longs for action and tries to maintain correspondence with Robbie while he is tending the wounded at the front. After a nasty clash with her parents, they essentially disown her and Lilly enrolls in the war effort, volunteering to drive ambulances in France. Not only does this allow her to be useful, but it also allows her to pursue her relationship with Robbie. While I have no problem with a romantic relationship involving main characters, at a certain point it seemed to me that this was actually what the whole novel was really about, and the history/role of women in the war effort/class restrictions were just a side show. Robson provides some interesting historical information about field hospitals but honestly we learn very little about ambulance driving or Lilly’s experience of this job. Like so many things in this novel, the writer just throws some facts or a brief explanation at the reader rather than really explore and develop themes or characters. The other women drivers clearly come from different backgrounds and there is initially some tension between some of them and Lilly, but that all gets resolved quickly and easily. Robson hints at a possible relationship between Charlotte and Edward but then abandons it, much like those two characters in general (although I did just find out there are two more volumes in this series, so perhaps these two characters get better development there). Lilly’s parents are cartoonish in their disapproval and treatment of her and Robbie, and their mindset is never really explored or put into a larger context. Robbie and Lilly’s relationship, which is what this story is really about, is boring. Robson tries to build tension through misunderstandings and the danger of war but just doesn’t hit it. Every potential conflict or trauma is resolved too easily and, if I’m honest, unrealistically. I’ve said before that the hallmark of WWI novels is that they don’t have happy endings. Well, Somewhere in France tries to break the mold and it just isn’t good.
I’m no expert on romance novels but there are surely better choices than this on offer, and when it comes to WWI novels, there are plenty of really excellent books out there such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road, and John Boyne’s The Absolutist.