Author Jojo Moyes Picks the Best Wartime Love Stories
The perennial problem faced by anyone who writes about love is not how to bring your characters together, but how to keep them apart. A great love story thrives on the tension between wanting and getting. So, war is one of the most powerful backdrops for any love story.
Add to this the urgency and the poignancy caused by the proximity of death, the potential for snatched meetings and the possibility of profound loss, and you have some of the most memorable love stories around.
W.P. Inman and Ada Monroe barely know each other when they are ripped apart by the American Civil War. He endures sights and scenes on his journey back to her at Cold Mountain that almost corrupt his soul, while she has to toughen up to keep her inherited farm and survive in this new and dangerous landscape until he returns. For the bulk of Charles Frazier's 1997 novel, they are thousands of miles apart, not knowing if their love for each other might be an illusion. Either way, it might be the one thing that keeps them both going. Written with beautiful language, "Cold Mountain" is an epic love story set against unflinching horror and brutality.
Set before, after and during the Second World War, Ian McEwan's "Atonement" can feel like a cruel trick. We witness the fledgling young lovers Robbie and Cecilia, separated by a false accusation that lands him in prison, and we're relieved when later in the book, after he enlists in the army, they are reunited. That single meeting keeps him going through the evacuation at Dunkirk, when all he wants is to see her again. We also see the war through the eyes of Briony, the book's narrator, who is profoundly affected by the death of a young French soldier in her care. But what Briony tells us after the war shakes our belief both in Robbie and Cecilia and in everything that has come before, playing with the conventions of romantic fiction.
Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer Prize-winning classic is set during the American Civil War and its reconstruction, and it has as its leads two of the most charismatic characters in fiction. Fighting their way through the scorched South, Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler compel, adore and infuriate each other in equal measure until their final, inconclusive split. Mitchell partly based Rhett Butler on the dark sexuality of Rudolph Valentino, and I know of few women who would not secretly love to be the spoilt, willful, passionate and resourceful Scarlett. "Gone with the Wind" is not just an epic saga of great storytelling, but darkly erotic with its references to prostitutes, drunken sexual encounters and a possible marital rape.
Told mostly in epistolary form, "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society" is a love story set against the German occupation of Guernsey, a small island off the British coast, during and after the Second World War. The story unravels through the letters between Juliet Ashton, a newspaper columnist, and the shy Dawsey Adams, her accidental correspondent and eventual lover. Less of an epic love story than the others, this gentler tale nevertheless touches on themes of survival, loss and courage. Gently humorous at times, the fate of Elizabeth McKenna reduced me to tears.
No book has better conveyed the brutality and horror of the First World War trenches. Sebastian Faulks' 1993 novel follows the doomed love affair between Stephen Wraysford and Isabelle Azaire, the wife of the wealthy industrialist he is sent to stay with in 1910. Theirs is a meeting of minds and bodies, which leaves both changed irrevocably. In a dual timeframe, it also follows the story of Stephen's granddaughter Elizabeth, researching the First World War from the modern day, who is locked into her own illicit relationship. The two stories slowly intertwine, and while it cannot be said that there is an entirely happy ending, there is a lovely resolution of sorts. But the real memories of "Birdsong" are the scenes Stephen spends underground in the trenches, trapped with his fellow soldier Firebrace.
Jojo Moyes is the author of 10 novels including the New York Times bestseller "Me Before You" and "The Last Letter from Your Lover." Both "The Girl You Left Behind" and "Me Before You" were major international bestsellers: "Me Before You" was a Top 3 UK bestseller and a World Book Night Pick. She is also the author of the e-only novella "Honeymoon in Paris." Moyes lives with her husband and their three children on a farm in Essex, England.