Camille Di Maio is a local San Antonio author whose name I stumbled upon while looking through the calendar of events for The Twig Book Shop, and then was able to speak to recently about her overall experience with publishing a book. The Memory of Us is her first novel, and there are already plans for a second to be published in May of 2017. Not only is Di Maio a writer, but also a real-estate agent for the San Antonio area. And even though it feels like I have done more than enough reading about World War II to last for the rest of 2016, the premise of this novel was interesting enough for me to endure one more.
The Situation: Julianne Westcott leads a fairly privileged life in prewar Liverpool, England. Her days are full of organizing social events and fundraisers with her best friend, Lucille, as well as her with her mother leading the way. She delights in picking out the perfect dresses, hats, shoes, and jewelry, and manages to turn the heads of nearly every young man who catches sight of her. With plans to study nursing, Julianne is more than a suitable match for any young man who both has a bright future and has the guts to pursue her. And even when she learns about the blind and deaf twin brother her parents never told her about, the one they keep hidden away in the Bootle Home far away from Liverpool, Julianne still manages to enjoy the social functions, even if they do now seem somewhat trivial in the grand scheme of things. Keeping her visits to her brother a secret, Julianne keeps up appearances among her family and friends, while living with the questions she desperately wants answered, but does not dare ask.
The Problem: Visiting Charles at the Bootle Home is a delight for Julianne. But soon it is not only Charles that she comes to visit. While she has made a friend in Miss Ellis, the kind older woman who works at the Bootle Home, Julianne has also made a friend in Kyle McCarthy, the son of the gardener. Almost immediately, Julianne finds herself looking forward to seeing Kyle almost more then she does her brother. She goes out of the way to make conversations with him, and is disappointed when he is not around. And while it becomes clear that the pair have feelings for each other, once Kyle's father secures work on the Westcott grounds back in Liverpool, it is also clear Julianne's parents would never agree to the match. Plus, Kyle is studying to become a priest, and priest do not marry. What begins innocently enough between the pair turns into a relationship that will take their lives to places they never imagined. And then there is the small matter of World War II and the advances Hitler's Germany is making. Julianne's parents become one of the lesser adversaries in the couple's life, as Julianne must make one impossible decision after another, always considering what is best for those she loves.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical novel set mostly before and during WWII in England, with the later part of the book moving quickly into the 1960s and beyond. At the start of the novel, Julianne is young, pretty, ambitious, and does not have many secrets to hide, aside from the one big one of knowing about and visiting her blind and deaf twin brother. Julianne finds out about her sibling purely by chance, and even her vague hints about his existence do not manage to bring out the slightest sign of recognition or remorse in her mother or father. And once Kyle enters the picture, she must deal with not only his future vocation in the priesthood, but also the fact that a Catholic gardener's son would never be accepted as a suitable match by her parents. With WWII looming, Julianne's once simple but still exciting life becomes more and more complicated, and each day brings with it an impending doom, one that will affect more than her love life. Di Maio's story shows that while choosing who to love has its own consequences, everything can still be turned on its side once war enters the picture. Di Maio admits that the story is heavily influenced by the Beatles song "Eleanor Rigby." There is a lonely priest and a lonely woman, and while the song does not say much about their relationship, Di Maio decided to speculate a little bit. At its core, the novel is a love story, and all of the issues Julianne must encounter only prove that just because it may be meant to be, it does not mean it will be easy.
My Verdict: While I may be a bit burned out on stories set during WWII, this book did not frustrate me or make me wish I had taken a break from historical novels that use this setting. Despite the death, destruction, unbearable sadness, and constant mourning that comes with what happened at the time, this novel still manages to be refreshing while still facing head on the difficulties the people endured. Julianne's life may have been easy once upon a time, but it does not remain that way. And the tough outer shell the character must cultivate comes about naturally and does not feel forced or unbelievable in any way. Julianne simply does what she believes, from her viewpoint, must be done. It starts with her desire to visit her brother and grows from there, making what could have easily been an annoying and entitled character into someone to admire and root for. I do take issue with some of her decisions as well as her reasoning behind them, but I still liked her by the end of the book. While still remaining a love story, the book explores so many other things that even those more interested in history or even light suspense would enjoy. And knowing that Di Maio drew inspiration from "Eleanor Rigby" makes me like the story even more. Fun Fact: when Paul McCartney visited San Antonio in 2014, Di Maio got a chance to hand him a copy of her book, and he began to read it to the audience.
Favorite Moment: When Julianne's gentle bedside manner is able to soften Kyle's cranky father when nothing else seems to work.
Favorite Character: Lucille is Julianne's best friend from childhood and always manages to be the most gentle, steadfast, and supportive force in her life. Even when the two become separated by marriage, distance and war, Lucille remains someone Julianne can look forward to seeing and talking to.
Recommended Reading: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction for 2015, and with good reason. It's worth checking out for those interested in more fiction set during WWII.