The War is over. At least, that’s what the newspapers say, but for Eleanor — and so many others — she’s still caught halfway between home and the front. Loud noises, unexpected movements, strange situations, all of them can and do catch her into a whirlwind of nerves. At least she has Tommy to keep her grounded. The gelding, like Nell, and unlike so many horses and men, survived the war and, while his condition is poor, he has a home to go to and Nell intends to get him there. The Captain, the man she served under as a veterinarian, has asked her to bring his horse home, trusting that with his money and her rank as a Lady, Nell will be able to get the job done.
Beatrice Hughes has barely had a moment of peace since her father returned home from the war. Demanding his family cal him “Captain,” he’s cold, abrasive, brusque, and violent — when he’s not drinking, smoking, or locked away and ignoring them. When the lovely woman arrives on their doorstep with, of all things, her father’s horse, Beatrice is torn between two emotions: rage that her father wasted his money, the money they need to support the farm and put food on the table and clothes on their backs, to bring home a worn down horse that’s just another mouth to feed; and a strike of sudden attraction for the tall, fine-boned woman who enters her gray life like a ray of sunshine.
When Beatrice’s mother goes missing, Nell and Beatrice are thrown into a whirlwind of fear, loss, pain, and anger as the truth about what happened is brought to light.
Nell is a privileged member of society. Born the granddaughter of a Duke, she has both a title and money. She was able to gain an education as a veterinarian and, at the front, tending horses and getting them ready to head back into battle, she earned the title of doctor and the respect of her Captain, who protected her and fought for her. Coming back to England and seeing him again, no longer the heroic figure she remembered, but something all too human, Nell is forced to face her own reflection. She’s not who she was, and the idea of going back home to her parents, going back to normal life as though she hadn’t been elbows deep in wounded and dying horses day after day, as though she hasn’t faced the horrors of the front, feels impossible.
While trying to find a path through the maze of her own thoughts and feelings, Nell finds Beatrice. The other woman is calm, strong, beautiful, and feels like home. The smell of violets, the way she takes care of the children and the house and Nell, it makes her feel safe. Beatrice becomes a refuge, one Nell can’t let go and will do everything she can to keep. Even as she promises never to lie to Beatrice, Nell makes choices to hide things from her so it isn’t technically lying … and she’s doing it for Beatrice’s good. She’s doing it, all of it, to make Beatrice love her back, to want her, to want to keep her. That’s what love is, right? Making someone else want you?
Beatrice has grown used to managing things between her mother, worn down by childbirth after childbirth, and grief as her eldest three sons were killed in the war, and who now endures an abusive drunkard of a husband who sees her as something worthless; her siblings, to whom Beatrice’s more mother than sibling; and her father, who ignores her unless he needs her and who treats her equal parts as servant and soldier. She’s bitter and angry, and she knows it, but she can’t seem to let go of it.
With Nell, everything is at first bright and splendid as she allows herself to dream of falling into the arms of another woman, until she realizes that Nell, too, is a person. One who is far from perfect, who carries a past born of rank and wealth on one hand and the war on the other. What Beatrice wanted was a story; what she got was Nell. Even when Nell promises love, it’s abrupt and flawed and Beatrice knows she hurts the other woman when she won’t accept it.
This book had some interesting moments as Nell was struggling with identity, both as a lesbian, looking to find a way to live her life on her own terms and find love with another woman, and as a soldier coming home changed by a horrific war. Unfortunately, every time Nell managed to take a step forward, growing as a person, she’d look at Beatrice again and make herself smaller and meeker in the hopes that Beatrice would want her back. I didn’t feel much chemistry in the pair, personally. I understood why they fell into bed (good old fashioned lust), but as a couple, they didn’t work for me. Nell seemed to want the image of Beatrice, while Beatrice wanted someone from a story. Unfortunately, while Nell did her best to please Beatrice, Beatrice was a bit of a bitch to Nell. She was cold, curt, manipulative, and unkind. She may have had her reasons, and I’m not denying that they were fair, but it made her very hard for me to like.
The pacing was fair, and the story moved along without any spots dragging on too long, but the writing was a strange combination of stilted, stiff formality, which added to the atmosphere, and a relaxed, modern approach, which made some conversations feel rushed or abrupt. The research the author did both into female doctors and veterinarians on the front in WWI is interesting, and the thoughtful, mindful approach to Nell’s trauma and PTSD are very well done. I just can’t help but think Beatrice’s manipulation and cruelty is a poor reward for Nell.
This is one of those books where I recommend the author, but not this particular story. Some people may like Beatrice, and I’m not saying she was in any way a bad character. She just felt a poor match for Nell and not the sort of person I enjoy reading about. So, read at your own risk, but my personal reaction to this book was a lukewarm one.