Ship of Brides by Jojo Moyes
Genre: Historical fiction
This was such a frustrating mess of positives and negatives that it was difficult to decide between 2.5 and three stars. I eventually went with three stars because, despite all its issues, Ship of Brides was still an enjoyable read.
In 1946, thousands of war brides–foreign women who married service men in wartime–are given free passage to the US, Canada, and Britain to join their husbands–leaving family, country, and everything they have ever known. Four Australian women from very different backgrounds board the aircraft carrier HMS Victorious bound for the British Isles to rejoin the husbands they had only known for brief weeks during wartime. As the ship breaks its way across the endless ocean, the women must come to terms with the choices of their past, their powerless positions as brides, and find a way to pave a good future for themselves.
I really, really liked the premise of this book. The war brides of WWII are often forgotten in the narrative of the war, and I thought this would be one step closer to giving voices to those who had none. But what I found was that Moyes gave way too many voices, and ended up producing a confusing muddle of a story because of it. First, we have the modern day prologue and epilogue–detailing the highly contrived story of an old woman who, while on vacation in freaking INDIA, somehow stumbles upon the scrap of the ship that gave her freedom SIXTY YEARS EARLIER–, which is a trope that can be used well, but that can often backslide into melodrama and seem completely unnecessary. I think Moyes was trying to do what Kristin Hannah did with such jarring poignancy in The Nightingale, but the “big reveal” of which bride the narrator turned out to be was painfully obvious and not much of a reveal at all.
Then there are the bizarrely unnecessary POV’s that spatter the narrative. Why did the book open with Letty’s POV, for instance? She was in the book for about two minutes and then is never seen or heard from again and she doesn’t even do a good job of introducing Margaret and her situation. Why not just open with Margaret herself, or better yet, with Frances? Frances, who is probably the most central character, didn’t get much of a say until far later in the story. Likewise, I liked Captain Highfield, but we spend a bizarre amount of focus on his growth from woman-hating lifetime navy man to woman sympathizer with disproportionately modern views. Highfield’s POV could have been removed completely with nothing lost from the story as the focus of the novel should have been mostly on the Brides. Or else a larger focus could have been given to Nicol, who was far more central, and whose character seemed rushed and a bit two-dimensional because of it.
Over all, I think Moyes tried to do too much with this book. It is because of this that we come to my biggest problem: she introduces many (too many) in-depth, serious issues and doesn’t deal with them properly. She introduces issues of 1. sex trafficking/prostitution 2. desertion (specifically by and only by mothers/wives oddly enough) 3. rape 4. bigamy 5. sexism 6. classism and many others, yet somehow manages to avoid ever discussing the trauma of WAR in a novel focusing entirely on WWII VETERANS.
There are so many complex issues surrounding women’s stories and experiences in WWII, that while I think Moyes made a valiant effort to explore the injustices and powerlessness of women in the early to mid-20th century, her writing was not yet mature enough to truly engage the issues. She focused too much on sheer pettiness within the women’s relationships, that I sometimes thought she was doing more to reinforce sexist stereotypes than to dispel them. And the larger, intensely complex issues that I mentioned previously were hardly dealt with at all–and boiled down to more one-dimensional problems rather than the nuanced, life-altering issues that they are.
At the same time I still read the book. I still enjoyed the story and the characters. I just wish certain things had been handled in a more careful way.