Pick an adjective - sweeping, sprawling, epic, Olympian — and yet none quite conveys the emotional width and depth of Julie Berry’s brilliant new novel, “Lovely War.” A heady mix of mythology, historical fiction and romance, Berry’s meticulously researched book spans two wars and two worlds. A significant part of the action revolves around four young people finding love and experiencing loss in World War I, but the overarching story actually is set during World War II and features a romantic triangle starring three Greek Gods: Aphrodite, the goddess of love; her husband, Hephaestus, the god of fire and forges; and Ares, the god of war and her paramour.
If this all sounds like a bit of an audacious mishmash, fear not. Berry - whose previous books include “The Passion of Dolssa” and “The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place” - is a master at weaving disparate elements to craft a truly original story populated with characters who will take up permanent residence in readers’ hearts and minds. Berry also doesn’t neglect the need for some levity, and readers will be especially amused by the Immortals’ snarky comments and constant competition with one another.
“Lovely War” opens in December 1942 in a swanky Manhattan hotel where Aphrodite has gone to meet Ares for a tryst. But their night of illicit romance is cut short by Hephaestus, who is fed up with his wife’s unfaithfulness. Catching the two lovers in a golden net, he agrees to listen to Aphrodite tell a story of the transcendent power of love - even in a time of war - as a way of avoiding a trial by her peers on Mount Olympus.
Aphrodite eagerly obliges, and readers are plunged back in time, to November 1917, and into the stories of four young mortals: James, an English soldier and would-be architect who is a reluctant sharpshooter; Hazel, a young Englishwoman who volunteers to use her piano-playing talent for wartime work in France; Aubrey, an African-American serviceman and superb jazz pianist who faces daily racism from his white colleagues; and Colette, a young Belgian woman with a haunting singing voice who was orphaned by the Germans. Music brings the quartet together as James first meets Hazel when she is playing piano at a local dance, while Aubrey finds a musical soul mate in Colette after Hazel introduces them at a French relief camp.
How the lives of these couples become intertwined through the war years and beyond makes for a compelling saga, as Berry tackles issues of racism, women’s roles in society and the far-reaching effect of World War I. Still, readers are always aware that it’s all a tale being told by Aphrodite, who is joined at intervals by Ares and other gods. These gods are constantly interrupting the story and also intervening in it (unbeknown to the humans) at crucial points. This encircling narrative produces a uniquely multilayered novel that readers will be reluctant to conclude. Though “Lovely War” is being marketed to teens, adults looking for a memorable, well-told tale should not be shy about delving in, too.