The End of Innocence
About This Book
In this enthralling story of love, loss, and divided loyalties, two students fall in love on the eve of WWI and must face a world at war—from opposing sides.
Cambridge, MA, 1914: Helen Windship Brooks, the precocious daughter of the prestigious Boston family, is struggling to find herself at the renowned Harvard-Radcliffe university when carefree British playboy, Riley Spencer, and his brooding German poet-cousin, Wils Brandl, burst into her sheltered world. As Wils quietly helps the beautiful, spirited Helen navigate Harvard, they fall for each other against a backdrop of tyrannical professors, intellectual debates, and secluded boat rides on the Charles River.
But with foreign tensions mounting and the country teetering on the brink of World War I, German-born Wils finds his future at Harvard—and in America—increasingly in danger. When both cousins are called to fight on opposing sides of the same war, Helen must decide if she is ready to fight her own battle for what she loves most.
Based on the true story behind a mysterious and controversial World War I memorial at this world-famous university, The End of Innocence sweeps readers from the elaborate elegance of Boston’s high society to Harvard’s hallowed halls to Belgium’s war-ravaged battlefields, offering a powerful and poignant vision of love and hope in the midst of a violent, broken world.
Historical Fiction is the genre I LIVE FOR, both as a reader and a writer, especially the early 20th Century. And I absolutely LOVE this cover. It’s understated, poignant, and incredibly haunting—everything I hoped this story would turn out to be!
And for the first half of this book, I was absolutely in LOVE with this story. It lived up to all my expectations and then some. Five stars all the way. But then . . .
The writing was beautiful from the very beginning. With a semi-omniscient voice, Jordan presented her story almost as if she were a bird, flying high above the action to describe the panorama of her surroundings and settings, then swooping into a character’s heart and mind to really engage me as a reader in specific moments and scenes. The dialogue was well-balanced and very distinct for each character, and historically appropriate.
The research and story world were simply brilliant. The ebb and flow of Harvard life at the outbreak of World War I was superbly rich and detailed. I not only felt the fictional characters were living and breathing in a real world, but that I was right there with them.
While I haven’t read too much World War I fiction to know if a German-sympathetic novel is original in this genre, I did find it compelling and heart-tugging to read . . . at least, for the first part! This book will appeal to adult readers who enjoy literary, historical fiction, war stories, and fiction based on real-life places, people and events. I do not recommend it for teens or younger readers.
I immediately liked Wils, Riley and Helen, as well as several of the minor characters. They all leaped off the very first page for me, and had me rooting for them all. The characters’ points of view were always distinct, and even the antagonists were well written and engaging. Which is so much of the reason why I absolutely hated the second half of this book, and especially its ending.
If book reviews were all coded in hashtags, I’d have to put the great big #FAIL when it came to story structure and pace. And fair warning: the only way I can explain why this was such a fail is by giving some pretty big spoilers here.
The story is told in linear fashion and ranges from 1914 to . . . 1932??? It’s also presented in three distinct parts. Part One, the autumn of 1914 at Harvard and various surrounding locales, was excellent and emotionally gripping, with wonderful characters and conflict. The tension of the war, of merely befriending a German, let alone falling in love with one, and the heartbreak of the young men on both sides of the battle lines being dragged into a conflict not of their making or understanding. . . it was simply stunning.
But then came the halfway point of the novel and Part Two, Wils and Riley at the front. This read like a completely different novel, introducing several new characters and conflicts over and above mere war. Helen completely disappeared as a point of view character until a short scene at the very end of this section where we see her reading a letter . . . in which she’s told that both Wils and Riley have died. Yes, died.
Then the final 25% of the book is Part Three, which takes place in 1932 and features homely spinster Helen being coaxed into advocating for a memorial plaque in the Harvard chapel that honors the German was casualties as well as the American. And according to the author’s note at the end of the book, this fight over the memorial plaque in 1932 was actually the focus of and inspiration for her entire story. But the way it’s presented in these three linear parts, this bit at the end feels tacked on like an afterthought, not crucial to the inspiration for the entire book.
I believe the story should have started with Helen in 1932, with the mystery of the two plaques, and then have her show us, through a series of flashbacks/memories, how she came to know and love these German men and what became of them. Not only would this have given the book a unifying theme and focus (something missing in its current piecemeal construction), it would have increased the pathos and tragedy surrounding Wils’ and Riley’s fates.
I loved how the author let Wils and Helen’s relationship evolve gradually, from their first drunken confrontation at a party to their final, heartbreaking parting on the Boston docks as Wils left for war. I was rooting for them from the very beginning, and yes, I was naïve enough to hope Wils would survive and return to her. It’s not that I’m upset their story ended tragically (I’m not THAT naïve); rather, I just hated the way Wils’ death was so casually handled. Again, the element of flashbacks from the 1932 Helen would have gone a long way toward preparing me for this tragic ending.
While this is relatively clean for a general market novel, there is some content which conservative readers may find questionable. Wils is drunk on champagne at the party where he first meets Helen, and several other characters imbibe regularly. A German student’s death on campus is investigated as a potential murder, with several violent confrontations erupting between American and German students. An anti-German brigade is formed with the singular mission of targeting Wils. Riley is an avowed philanderer, and Wils and Helen consummate their relationship before he leaves for the front; later, they both declare to others that they were “married in a civil service.” A half-dozen or so mild profanities appear throughout.
If I could chop this book into pieces, Part One would have a home on my Keeper Shelf. That part of the story was an emotional page-turner I could not put down. The second half, however, completely lost me and sank this book from a five-star rating to only three stars.
In conclusion, a place where all views should have been welcomed and debated, the Harvard campus in 1914 instead erupts in chaos and bigotry as the outbreak of war turns friend against friend. Yet in this emotional crucible, an American heiress befriends and ultimately falls for a quiet scholar from the German nobility, and their blossoming love sets off a firestorm of a different kind . . . and that’s where this novel should have ended. Unfortunately, The End of Innocence goes on to become a completely different and wholly unsatisfying novel from that point, thanks to a choppy structure and misplaced inspiration.
Available August 26, 2014 from Sourcebooks Landmark