As a preamble to my first blog post for this challenge, I should clarify a few things about my nutty methods. Firstly, just because I write a review about a book doesn’t necessarily mean that I just recently finished reading it. You’ll notice that that’ll be the case with my second blog post. That book I finished more than a week ago. Secondly, even though I committed to reviewing fifty-two books doesn’t mean I intend to read merely fifty-two books. So far this year, I have read four books of which only two will make it on my blog. I still intend to read another two before the month is out and those reviews will make it to this blog. Thirdly, I have severe ADHD so I typically read anywhere between three and seven books at a time to keep me interested. I switch them up intermittently just like channel surfing on cable TV. Not only do I read many books at a time but I will very likely re-read some of my books. I tend to do that so be prepared for it. Lastly, I am the first to admit that I am always up for a good debate. I genuinely enjoy receiving insight into other people’s psyche. I creatively thrive on the myriad of world views that can stem from a question posed as simple as “What is love?” But I will ask that we please opine at all times with civility, mutual respective and consideration.
With that said…let’s get on with it. Shall we?!
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain is a book based on the author’s early life from her uneventful bland Edwardian upbringing in Buxton to her death-defying volunteering as a wartime nurse during the Great War in her early twenties which would then lead her into her writing career as she approaches thirty. With the exception of living through a war, so much of her book resonated with me that I simply could not put it down. She divulges with unadulterated impartiality her constant struggle between keeping true to herself and meeting conventional societal norms. Her inner conflict between rationale and what the heart dictates is the voice that sets the entire tone for this book; a voice that is simultaneously maudlin and poignant. The book starts off a bit meek. She provides a synopsis of her family’s history before transitioning into the detail of the constant battle that she faces with her antiquated father. He fully supported Edward, Vera’s brother, in attending university but saw no purpose in Vera striving for the same. This is a battle that she would soon learn was not unique to her father’s view of the world but that of the world’s which had inculcated the belief in her father that a woman had no place in university. A family friend comes to visit, talks about the benefits of providing a woman with a formal education, her father is finally persuaded and there starts the rest of Vera’s life.
From the moment Vera is permitted to attend university alongside her brother, her entire life completely changes. In short, she meets the love of her life. She goes off to Oxford. After the Great War breaks out and both her brother and her lover go off to war she then decides to take a hiatus from her education to serve her country as best as she could. She spends four years as a nurse caring for British soldiers and injured German prisoners of war alike. She loses her love first in the first year, then her two close friends and finally her beloved brother just six months before the end of the war. She reluctantly goes back to Oxford after the war to continue her education. She changes from being an English major to being a History / International Relations major. After she graduates, she struggles to find her footing in the professional world. She finds her place in the League of Nations and as a writer. She meets her future husband. She faces yet another struggle between keeping her independence and the convention of marriage. Ultimately, she succumbs to the idea of being someone’s wife but not before setting several rules as to what that will look like to someone of her independent nature. She marries. And thus ends the book.
Here is what I loved about the book. The language! I absolutely love how Vera expresses herself. I’m not sure if you are the same way but I like to highlight and annotate my books as I’m reading them. I wrote ALL over this book.
“But I suppose it’s no use weeping over last year’s dead leaves. All the tears in the world cannot make them green again. Perhaps when it is all over we shall find that other and better things have taken root in the mould of their dying.” Who thinks or speaks this way?! Apparently Vera did. I love it! I also absolutely love her authentic and realistic views on love.
“‘I could have done so well without love – before it came – I with my ambitions and life work…’ I wrote in my diary. ‘I shall never again now be able to work towards worldly triumphs with the same disinterested concentration. It was so pleasant when I had only myself to care for most instead of someone else. My peace of mind gone for ever – it will never completely return.’ People talked so foolishly’, I thought, about the ennobling effects of suffering. No doubt the philosophy that tells you your soul grows through grief and sorrow is right – ultimately. But I don’t think this is the case at first. At first, pain beyond a certain point merely makes you lifeless, and apathetic to everything but itself.” This is precisely how it is. Vera completely floored me by being able to put this experience into words.
The grandiose language and her ability to so poignantly describe her love for Roland were definitely the most important factors. But those two factors were only the beginning of all the things I loved about this book. I also loved how much she loves nature and her uncanny ability to describe its beauty. Her descriptions take me there. I too have walked there alongside Vera. “Wherever we went the spring flowers, lovely and benevolent, mitigated the invisible antagonism of the rocks. Their colours, so clear, so delicate, so generous, smote our eyes with their candid beauty. I still remember the exquisite pang with which, after crossing a field carpeted golden and orange with oxalis and single wild marigolds, I suddenly saw for the first time the silvery pink of tall asphodels lifting their heads from the deep grass of a half-hidden glade. Between the boulders beside the road, giant irises waved their purple flags, and among the rocks a deep scarlet vetch grew from so shallow a soil that it seemed to spring from the very face of the stone, and created, quite startlingly, an illusion of spilt blood.”
She must have been the loyalest and most passionate of friends, a patient and methodical woman. She never gave up on any of her relationships whether it was with her lover, brother, closest friends or family. She was a care-taker at heart. She was compassionate. She was also strong-willed. She did everything in her power to graduate from Oxford and to move on with her life after the war. I have the feeling that we would have been great friends had I been able to go back in time and had been given the chance to meet her. Day dreaming…
Most of the book was interesting and a fairly fluid read…UNTIL…the last hundred pages.
The last hundred pages were drab. They were essentially an excruciatingly exhaustive and long-winded account of the making of her career. It read as the longest resume in the history of resumes even though I was not looking to hire. It was brutal. But that was not the only part that I did not enjoy. Her lack of self-confidence, constant presumptuous fatalistic outlook and her self-deprecating assessments were a tad disconcerting and disturbing. Her undying love for Roland and her struggle to come to terms with it even whilst considering the marriage proposal from the man that she would ultimately marry were distressing. What made it all the more painful to read was that she actually expressed in full disclosure her apprehensions and the basis for these to her fiance. (Insert: face palm) The man must have been a saint to put up with that. And finally, though as petty as it may seem, I was easily distracted by the fact that she had a tendency to abuse certain favored words. The biggest offender of them all was the word “incongruous”. After the third chapter, I made it my mission to count all the times she used it in all its variations. After awhile I lost track and interest. It was too irritating. Second runner up to this pique was the word “benevolence”.
Aside from those pesky reiterations, her uncomfortable sanctification of her deceased lover, the interminable carta vitae and the blatant disregard for the ego of her future husband, this book was marvelous. She was definitely honest. I like that. I gave this book four stars on GoodReads. It could have been a five had it not been for the incessant utterance of the word “incongruous”. Ha! Let me know your thoughts if you get around to reading it or if you’ve ever read it before.
Next up on my “To Be Read” list is “Silence” by Shusaku Endo. So excited! Until next time my fellow bloggers!