Disclaimer: This review is based on an advanced reading copy provided by the authors.
In the summer of 1914, everyone thought that the “war to end all wars” would end within four months, and everybody would be home for Christmas. As we all know, that did not happen.
The subsequent four years are the setting for the story told through the exchange of letters between Evie and Tom, childhood friends separated by the war, and their friends and business associates on the frontlines in France as well as at home in England. The correspondence starts as light banter full of youthful enthusiasm for an adventure, and slowly takes on more somber and reflective tones as casualties mount and the scale of the conflict becomes apparent. Amid the shattered plans for a Christmas reunion in Paris, the protagonists are faced with a test of character and loyalty, and forced to re-examine their feelings for each other.
Last Christmas in Paris has all the tried-and-true elements of a romance, with twists and turns that will make the genre’s fans’ hearts racing, and Kleenex tissues busy until the last page.
But it also has a surprising amount of historical heft as it chronicles the loss of innocence of a whole generation. That loss is made even more stark by the politics of the day that insisted – even as battlefield casualties grew and shell-shocked soldiers returned home to tell a different story – that the war was a glorious affair, with endless opportunities for heroism. The nature of truth and the role of the media in pursuing it – or deciding not to pursue it – is a major theme, and it is still relevant a hundred years later.
The empowerment of women – already underway prior to 1914 through the work of suffragettes, but given additional impetus by the outbreak of the war – is also highlighted in the novel. One thing we learn through Evie’s efforts to become a journalist and join the WAAC to contribute more than just “knitting” is that it was not just the patriarchy that held women back. In many cases – especially among those of the higher social status – it was other women (often their mothers) who were against taking jobs outside the home, which they considered beneath them. But as men departed for the trenches, women had to learn the skills that had previously been out of their reach in order to keep the country going. After that, there was no going back.
Ultimately, one of the ironies of the Great War – and possibly most other wars in human history – is that besides bringing the worst out of humanity, it was also a powerful catalyst for positive societal changes, not to mention the love stories that flourished in its ominous shadow.
Last Christmas in Paris will be published in October 2017 by HarperCollins.