If you read their short stories in Fall of Poppies, you’ll understand immediately why I was drawn to Last Christmas in Paris. Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb live and breathe the spirit of the World War I era.
Evie and Thomas correspond throughout the War. Their letters, and occasionally those of other people in their lives, cover the range of emotions throughout the long, senseless war. Along with Evie’s brother Will and their mutual friend Alice, the foursome had planned to spend a Christmas in Paris. The war changed that. There is also a brief, intermittent, story of one character in 1968 throughout the book.
What I Loved
Everything. I just loved this book. I especially liked the way the couple’s letter show the changes the war brings to them and to their outlook–the maturity in some ways, as well as the ways they are left unchanged. Seeing the notions of masculinity, honor and duty crushed by the senselessness of the war is soul crushing both to the reader and the to the characters, yet the book is in no way depressing–this is a story of mutual encouragement.
“It is March  already You and Will have been gone six months. Half a year. It feels more like half a lifetime. How much longer must we endure this, Tom? How much longer until the enemy is defeated and you can return to England, victorious?” ( Evie p. 70)
“I wonder when my time will be up? Will it be all white-hot pain, or the slow drain of life ebbing away? I keep a last letter in my jacket pocket–a lot of us do, just in case. I think about it often, who will read it first. Will the words have any meaning when I’m only a memory in the ground? …In these moments I wish I had drawn up a will. It was foolish to leave my fate to chance….” (Thomas, p. 77)
Six months into the war and this is how they feel! Wow! Six months. As the years of the war go on, as friends and loved ones die, as other threats arise, their friendship endures. It is so hard to even give quotes here without giving spoilers!
I loved the way we see the modern world beginning in their stories–the “battle fatigue” cases that today we know as PTSD are one way. The use of women in noncombatant roles, not only as nurses, eventually grows to place them, in uniform, very near the front. Women also found some freedom on the home front to take jobs left vacant by the men who were off fighting. Farming, labor, and service jobs all saw women filling roles and doing it well. Women were also writing in the press specifically for other women–this is, of course, the era of the Suffragettes. In Britain the movement agreed to stop for the duration of the war, but women still made their voices heard. By telling the women’s side of the war, all of Britain benefited and men, even the stuffy club men, had to take notice. Barriers were coming down in some ways, as well. At the front the men banded together having to trust each other in spite of class differences. Men and women also began to find romance across class distinctions at the front, or very near the front, as well.
4 solid stars
This book is a treasure. Don’t miss it.