Suffolk, 1939: Julia Compton has a beautifully well-ordered life. Once a promising musician, she now has a handsome husband who pays the bills, a young son she adores and a housekeeper who takes care of her comfortable home. Then on the eve of war something unexpected happens. She falls in love. The consequences are devastating. Cut off from family and friends, Julia loses everything. Penniless, denied access to her son, completely unequipped to fend for herself, she is cast adrift in wartime London with her bohemian filmmaker lover Dougie. As invasion looms and the bombs rain down her struggle is only beginning. While Dougie seeks truth wherever he can find it, Julia finds herself lost. Before long, ruined and broken, she faces a choice – succumb to her fate, or fight to forge a new identity in the heat of war.
The blurb describes very well the general plot but for me the telling phrase is she has “a handsome husband who pays the bills”. This is not the way I’d hope most of us would describe a husband and is suggestive of a practical arrangement rather than a happy, fulfilling marriage. Little wonder then, that Julia has her head turned by the advances of a handsome, married, bohemian film-maker Dougie Birdsall.
Without describing plot and giving away spoilers, I’d like to say why I loved this book. First of all I’ll admit that Brief Encounter is one of my favourite films of all time and this had echoes of the prim and proper Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) meeting the charismatic Dr Harvey (Trevor Howard). Only in this instance Julia is the bored suburban houswife who is more than tempted and Dougie is the stranger with it transpires little moral integrity. Unlike the film, Julia and Dougie, ignore the prevailing social mores and embark on an affair that has irreversible consequences, especially for Julia.
This is a wonderful period piece that presents a portrait of a relationship in turmoil and how society viewed adultery/divorce. Adultery was nothing new, but as a respectable wife and mother having an affair, Julia paid dearly for her choices. As a woman, she became essentially persona non grata, within her social circle/family and her actions are deemed morally reprehensible. Set against the backdrop of the Blitz, it also highlights the contradictions of a growing live-for-the-moment attitude and changing sexual attitudes among the young.
It offers an interesting insight into life on the Homefront during the war. This ranges from practical day to day living and rationing constraints to an insight into the Ministry of Information and how it worked to present positive images and morale boosting films to aid the war effort. The war is a pivotal feature in the story as it engineers Julia and Dougie’s meeting and also, without spoilers, her salvation.
It is a book that creates a range of emotions and really draws you in, not all the characters are likeable but they are very well drawn, and realistic, making this a great read, that I’d happily recommend. I’m looking forward to reading more by this author based on this.
I received a review copy via NetGalley in return for an honest review.