Thursday, August 14, 2014
Book Review: "When the World Was Young" by Elizabeth Gaffney
Published: August 5, 2014
Genre: Historical Fiction
Recommended for fans of mid-Twentieth Century Historical Fiction
Wally Baker is no ordinary girl. Living in her grandparents’ Brooklyn Heights brownstone, she doesn’t like dresses, needlepoint, or manners. Her love of Wonder Woman comics and ants makes her feel like a misfit—especially in the shadow of her dazzling but unstable mother, Stella.
Acclaimed author Elizabeth Gaffney’s irresistible novel captures postwar Brooklyn through Wally’s eyes, opening on V-J day, as she grows up with the rest of America. Reeling from her own unexpected wartime tragedy and navigating an increasingly fraught landscape, Wally is forced to confront painful truths about the world—its sorrows, its prejudices, its conflicts, its limitations. But Wally also finds hope and strength in the unlikeliest places.
With an unforgettable cast of characters, including the increasingly distant and distracted Stella; Loretta, the family’s black maid and Wally’s second mother; Ham, Loretta’s son, who shares Wally’s enthusiasm for ants and exploration; Rudy, Wally’s father, a naval officer, away serving in the Pacific; and Mr. Niederman, the family’s boarder, who never seems to answer Wally’s questions—and who she suspects may have something to hide—Elizabeth Gaffney crafts an immersive, beautifully realized novel about the truths that divide and the love that keeps us together.
This was an interesting book, but a rather hard book for me to rate. There were some 5-star aspects of this book, as well as some 3-star aspects--so it was a bit of a mixed bag.
I did really enjoy the era in which this book was set. I've read books set during WWII and books set in the 50s, but very few books I've read look at those two periods together. The setting of this book is such a rich time--a nation recovering from war and the early stages of the modern Civil Rights and Feminist movements. I also quite liked Wally--we meet her as a precocious tween who shadows the son of her grandmother's African-American maid and then watch her grow into adulthood. And her world is not typical--both her Grandmother and Mother are physicians in a time when few women went into that profession.
However, it took me a while to get into this book. I think part of the problem is the structure. We start at VJ day and then immediately go through an extended flash-back period and then--at least 25% of the way into the book--back to VJ day when the story really starts. It wasn't until we came back to that period that I was really able to invest myself in this book.
My other frustration with this book comes as the book ends. While I found the plot interesting, I felt that , as the conclusion neared, Gaffney backed away from delving deeper into the social issues facing the characters. She had done this earlier in the book, which is what made it seem lopsided to me.
Ultimately, I'm glad I read this book and I did enjoy it--but I could have enjoyed it more if some of the structural issues had been corrected. I would probably still recommend this book as I found it to be readable and unique, but I wouldn't tout it as being one of the best out there.
I received an electronic copy of this book in return for an honest review. I received no other compensation for this post.