Book review: Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson

The centenary year of the Great War has already produced a flurry of novels, not least this moving tale of love, hardship and self-discovery from Canadian writer Jennifer Robson.

By Pam Norfolk
Thursday, 30th January 2014, 9:00 am
Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson
Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson

When a young woman defies her wealthy family and traditional upbringing to pursue her destiny, the horrors of war will test her courage and endurance to the limit.

Inspired by the work of her father, the acclaimed historian Stuart Robson, this talented debut author uses a fictional medium to explore the conflict between love and duty, the constraints of class and gender, and the sacrifices of a doomed generation.

The blossoming romance between a daring debutante and a doctor from the wrong side of the tracks moves from the smart townhouses of London to the killing fields of France in a gripping story that encompasses all the danger, destruction and everyday dramas of war.

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In July 1914, Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford, better known as Lilly, would like nothing better than to travel the world, pursue a career and marry for love but tradition dictates that she should make her society debut, marry a man chosen by her parents and have children.

The stifling restrictions of aristocratic British society and her mother’s rigid expectations have so far forbidden Lilly from following her heart.

The only people who have truly encouraged her to pursue her dreams are her beloved brother Edward, her former governess Charlotte Brown and her brother’s best friend, Dr Robbie Fraser, who hails from a working class background in Glasgow and is considered by her parents to be ‘hardly more than a tradesman.’

When war breaks out, Lilly seizes her chance for independence, defies her angry parents, moves in with Charlotte and takes a job as a ‘clippie’ with the London Omnibus Company.

But she has set her sights on ambulance driving and, after learning to drive and the mechanics of stripping down an engine, she is posted out to France in 1917 as part of the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

Assigned to a field hospital, Lilly is reunited with surgeon Robbie, the man who stole her heart years ago. But afraid of the constant danger to Lilly’s life, Robbie is determined to keep her safe and at arm’s length, even if it means breaking her heart.

In a world divided by class and filled with uncertainty and death, can their love survive...or will it become just one more casualty of war?

Robson’s compelling and atmospheric story captures all the poignancy of a wartime romance without losing sight of the grim realities of working and fighting on the frontline of such a devastating conflict.

The experiences of Lilly, Robbie and Edward are a heart-rending reflection of the real-life personal histories of the millions who lived through four long years of unimaginable dangers and suffering.

Action packed and wonderfully romantic, Somewhere in France paints a rich and vibrant portrait of the Great War as well as paying a fitting tribute to those who played their part… and those who never returned.

(William Morrow, paperback, £7.99)