Louisa Young's My Dear I Wanted to Tell You starts out so gently: It's the story of Riley, a sensitive working-class boy in pre-World War I London. He's taken in by an aristocratic (but nonconformist) family, educated beyond his station, treated with kindness and encouragement until he embarks on a "thing" with the family's daughter Nadine, at which point he is banished; turns out they are only so liberal after all.
This part of the story fills the first third of the book, and you'd be forgiven for thinking the rest of the book would concern itself with the sweetness of the young couple's triumph over class-based adversity.
Well, guess again.
Riley, in a fit of pique, joins the army and is quickly shunted off to the trenches of World War I -- we all know what happened there. And Young doesn't spare us any details. In the turn of a page the book transforms from a pleasing love story into one of the most brutal war stories I've ever read.
We watch Riley change from a green boy to a ravaged, bitter man who endures horrific battles and winds up with a gruesome injury. Young doesn't spare Nadine either. To spite her parents, Nadine joins the Voluntary Aid Detachment and suffers her own form of hell as she is sent to the front as a battlefield nurse.
Both Nadine and Riley (and several other secondary characters) are suffering from serious cases of post-traumatic stress disorder by the end of the book, and I thought I might be too. I haven't cried this much while reading a book in a long time. It's horribly sad and beautifully written and a really great read, if you have the stomach for it. I loved it.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.