Review: The FitzOsbornes at War by Michelle Cooper

The FitzOsbornes at War by Michelle Cooper. Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. Currently Available.

Genre: Historical Fiction

The FitzOsbornes at WarFace Value: I love this cover. Like the content of the books, they’ve gotten better each time, and I think that the cover of this book perfectly conveys what’s inside. The image and the use of color are immediately evocative of it’s time, and the model for Sophie is perfect. It conveys both the fear of the time and the quiet intensity of our protagonist. I think it’s beautiful.

Does it Break the Slate? Yes!! Oh my goodness yes. I absolutely love this series, and while Sophie started out a Slatebreaker in A Brief History of Montmoray, she has truly come into her own by this third book. Her character is a wonderful example of how a quieter character can be a hero, the rock of her family, and an incredibly dynamic storyteller. Surrounded by big personalities, Sophie is still never lost in the crowd, or reduced to a blank slate of observation. And the other characters, especially over the three books of the series, build a rich portrait of different types of Slatebreakers, from the intellectual socialist Veronica to the rambunctious, indomitable Henry and stylishly competent Julia. It would be impossible to read this book and not root for this collection of amazing women.

Who would we give it to? Lovers of historical fiction who haven’t discovered this relatively under-the-radar series will be deeply grateful to you for turning them on to it. And (though I think the experience would be less meaningful, so I don’t really recommend it), I think that this final volume could definitely be experienced as a standalone World War II novel. And actually, even though it is a very different account of WWII, this is the book I’ve read that’s come closest to filling the Code Name Verity – shaped hole in my heart.

Spoiler Warning: There are no spoilers for The FitzOsbornes at War in this book, but some details from the first two books in the series will be inevitably revealed.

Review: We first met HRH Princess Sophie FitzOsborne on her sixteenth birthday in A Brief History of Montmoray, when she was living with her family in their castle in their small island country near Britain. By the second book, she and her siblings and cousins are in exile in pre-war England. This last installment takes the family through the war, from 1939 until 1944. It’s an older book, with Sophie in her twenties, and it’s much darker, given that it takes us through the entire war and doesn’t mess around with neat, magical resolutions.

In contrast to Code Name Verity, my favorite book of last year and a dramatic account of WWII from the middle of the conflict, The FitzOsbornes at War is a domestic novel. It really gives us a sense of what it was like to be a civilian in London during the war, and the simultaneous terror and tedium of life during that time. The fear of bombing is coupled with hours of boredom in a basement shelter, and the desire to do something meaningful to serve one’s country can involve proofreading misplaced commas for the Ministry of Food. Cooper’s writing (and Sophie’s voice) is so compelling, that it brought me right into the middle of these emotions and responses to the war. Honestly, I think it’s one of the best accounts of domestic wartime I’ve ever read, and part of that is the way the sense of waiting is conveyed. There’s so much that might happen, that could be devastating, and all you can do is live your life until it happens or doesn’t.

Key to the success of this book is Sophie’s narrative voice. Epistolary novels can be tricky, and the journal format can feel forced or like a clumsy device in the hands of a lesser writer. But Sophie is not only a reliable narrator, she is such a sincere and empathetic one, that the construct of her journals doesn’t just provide the device for the storytelling, they provide it’s emotional heart as well. Because she’s confiding her deepest secrets, in code, to be read by no one, we get to hear her innermost thoughts and feelings. We really see her grow up from the cheerful girl who started a diary in Montmoray into the young women who becomes the emotional center of her extended family. And there are a couple of truly devastating moments, that the way they are written in journal format is particularly shattering.

I love Sophie best of course (how could you not). But the rest of the FitzOsbornes and their friends are absolutely wonderful, and have gone through similar character growth over the course of the three books. There is not one single character that remains static, or purely for comic relief – everyone grows and changes. In this book we see Sophie’s beloved and brilliant cousin Veronica really come into her own politically and professionally, pushing for the future she’s always wanted for herself, and finally being able to let go of petty grievances. We see her brother Toby grow up from a charming jokester into is role as King of Montmoray, and cousin Simon becoming comfortable with who he is. And wild Henry is now a girl of 16, ready to turn her brash enthusiasm towards the war effort. And that’s not even touching on the amazing cast of characters (some who are actual historical figures) who surround the family while they are in England.

If you have any interest in historical fiction at all, I urge you to take a look at this series. Each book is better than the last, and this volume is an incredibly satisfying conclusion to the series.

Reviewed from library copy.

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