Monday, August 23, 2010

Alice in Exile

Piers Paul Read's 2004 historical fiction novel, Alice in Exile, combines all of the elements of a good read.

Eh, no pun intended.

Opening in 1913 in London, the novel sets its background during WW1, its aftermath, and the Russian Revolution that followed. Read takes the time to set the stage for even the most un-informed of history students and anyone, with his layman approach, can follow the complicated world politics of the time.

Alice Fry, the heroine, considers herself a new woman, perhaps a suffragette, but most certainty feels herself free from the moral constraints of the time. Her father, a progressive publisher, operates an independent book house and allows his partner the lead on what they publish including a pamphlet on women and their sexuality.

One night at a party, Fry meets Edward Cobb, a British soldier recently returned from Africa. Cobb sees a future in politics, and since he's the oldest son of a baron, is probably a shoe-in. The intelligent, yet radical and forward-thinking, Fry grabs his attention and attraction, and the two head straight into a serious love affair. Before long, they fall in love.

When Cobb asks Fry to marry him, she hesitates as she believed herself not in need of marriage, but her serious relationship with him and his earnestness causes her to accept. Before the two can announce their engagement formally, authorities arrest Fry's father on obscenity charges, and the scandal pushes Cobb to break his engagement.

Rescued by a Russian baron in need of a governess, Fry leaves England, and when Baron Rettenburg discovers that she is pregnant with Cobb's child, he encourages her to change her name and assume the identity of a French widow, whose military husband was killed in Morocco. Using this alias, Fry makes a life for herself on the estate of the Russian baron.

Meanwhile, Cobb makes a "good" marriage, but when the hostilities of Europe end in war, Cobb re-enlists and loses himself on the battlefields of WW1. After the horror of his experiences, he returns to England -- different.

Read's novel packs it all -- war, love, political and social commentary --but the real strenght is that he manages to balance a well-researched historical novel with a surprising love story.

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