Long-Distance Love in World War I

This Is How I’d Love You: A Novel, by Hazel Woods, (Plume), 320 pages, released August 26, 2014

Hazel Woods’ This Is How I’d Love You is a romance, so the reader can predict certain things from the start: the protagonists will seem an unlikely pair at first, both events and family will conspire to keep them separate, and ultimately they will find a way to be with one another.

What’s interesting about a romance, at least a particularly good one, is the character of the protagonists, their quirks, and the route by which they are first separated, then united. This Is How I’d Love You manages all of these admirably, creating a novel that’s difficult to put down even if the ending is a foregone conclusion of sorts.

Set during World War I, This Is How I’d Love You follows the friendship, then romance, between Hensley Dench, a young woman recently uprooted from her Manhattan home because her father has taken a job managing a mine in New Mexico and Charles Reid (Hensley addresses him as “Mr. Reid” for most of the novel), a somewhat older young man of wealthy background who is determined to be a doctor, rather than an administrator of the family fortune, and who has volunteered as a member of an ambulance corps that’s sent to France.

Before shipping overseas, Charles has requested a pen-pal with whom he can play long-distance chess games. He’s matched with Hensley’s father, a fierce pacifist (that’s the underlying reason for his loss of his job as a newspaper editorial writer and his new position managing the mine owned by a distant relation). The relationship between the chess players is prickly, but soon Hensley starts adding marginal notes to her father’s letters and later writing Charles letters of her own. Of course they find they are kindred spirits and come to rely on one another to see them through the separate difficulties they each face.

Neither of the two is quite whole when they finally meet, and both of them suffer from the “I-am-not-worthy” thing. However, this is a romance, and there’s a happy ending (it involves a circus!)—not saccharine, not when the action is set during the Great War—but happy nonetheless.

I found this novel a compelling read, and I was particularly engaged with the sections recounting Charles’ work in France. He faces nightly carnage; he has to conduct triage, choosing who he will take from the battlefield and who he will leave behind; and he regularly has to offer encouragement and hope to soldiers he knows will be dead within a few days. Mustard gas is killing many, and even the residual chemicals on a soldier’s uniform can be dangerous for the medics who treat him.

Even if you’re not usually a reader of romance, I’d recommend This Is How I’d Love You if you have any interest in the history of World War I—or if you enjoy novels in which the central characters struggle against family (and their own) prejudices in trying to reinvent themselves.

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