Jacqueline Winspear, born in Britain and now living in California, is fascinated by World War I. Her interest stems partly from memories of her grandfather, who was gassed and shellshocked in the Battle of the Somme.
The author has explored the aftermath of that terrible conflict in her thoughtful, nuanced books about Maisie Dobbs, a psychologist and private investigator in London between the world wars.
“The Care and Management of Lies” (Harper, 336 pp., $26.99) takes a different tack: the terrible presence, not the aftermath, of the first war. It’s a stand-alone novel set at the conflict’s start, with a story shuttling between rural England and the battlefields of France.
Kezia Marchant and Thea Brissenden have been friends since childhood. But the friendship is faltering as they move in different directions. Kezia is delighted to become a farmer’s wife, marrying good-natured Tom Brissenden.
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But Thea — Tom’s sister — plans a different future for herself: one of feminist activism and independence.
The strained friendship is symbolized by the presentation of a gift: Thea gives Kezia a book on household management — a not-so-subtle dig at the drudgery the bride presumably has in store.
A month after the marriage, war is declared and Tom is off to the trenches. The family’s patrician neighbor, who harbors a wistful desire for Kezia, is also sent (as an officer) to the front lines. And Thea, to her surprise, finds herself driving an ambulance.
Kezia, left behind, is in charge of the family farm and its handful of workers. At first much is made of her terrible cooking as she adjusts to farm life, but gradually she discovers a hidden gift for creative dishes.
Or at least a gift for imagining them, because they’re only on paper — that is, in letters to Tom. They describe in detail the splendid meals she prepares for him in his absence and he reads them aloud to his homesick mates.
Kezia and Tom both know that the “meals” are lies — reality on the home front is hard work and poor food. But both find deep comfort in her letters. Cooking is a way to express love; imagined cooking can serve the same purpose.
The scenes describing the hardships of farm life and the horrors of war are moving. But they’re not as emotionally perceptive as the Dobbs books, with oddly thin characters (especially the sadly underdeveloped Thea and an almost superfluous neighbor).
And the love story is pretty mushy — we’re repeatedly told about Kezia and Tom’s fervent devotion.
The book may disappoint readers expecting more of the Dobbs books’ familiar mystery elements, but it’s just as strong — enough to guarantee satisfaction for even the most fervent Maisie fan.
Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.