From bestselling writer Max Byrd comes an unforgettable evocation and portrait of Paris at the end of the second World War.
The splendidly gifted (and faintly scandalous) writer Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s famously unhappy third wife, is the presiding spirit over a great romance. Two American soldiers, torn apart by the war, meet and fall in love with Martha’s protégé—the irresistibly charming and vulnerable young reporter, Annie March.
Their story begins and ends on the beautiful Pont Neuf, the oldest and best-loved bridge in Paris. For Annie, every bridge connects two different worlds; to cross a bridge is to make a choice. For her, crossing Pont Neuf means choosing one man over the other, one life over another. It is a haunting love story that will move readers to tears.
In its Homeric themes of death and love, Eros and Thanatos, Pont Neuf also recalls the epic sweep of Byrd’s earlier novels, especially his acclaimed Civil War novel Grant. Its accounts of the last two massive battles of the war—Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands and the cataclysmic Battle of the Bulge—are riveting and authentic, the result of years of research. These historic moments are not simply a backdrop for romance, but also the treacherous and explosive landscape through which love itself moves.
Synopsis source: Goodreads
Thank you to author Max Byrd for gifting me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“What I know,” Martha said, “you fall in love the way you go bankrupt–gradually, then suddenly.”
I’m not sure what I expected going into this. A love triangle? I’m not opposed to them, not really, but I tend to reserve them for a certain kind of book, and it isn’t historical fiction, especially not WWII lit. A female protagonist written by a man? I acknowledge that it CAN be done well, but find that it isn’t often. Giving well-known, real-life people supporting character roles in the story? Tricky. Doing it well? Even trickier. Also, I was surprised how short the novel was, a meager 227 pages in the paperback version. But I figured that would be good if things didn’t work out above.
In Pont Neuf, Byrd focuses not on the concentration camps, nor does he focus on the espionage and Resistance work that occurred during the war. Instead, the story centers on one particular battle, The Battle of the Bulge. With great attention to detail, the events leading up to and including the Battle of the Bulge are brought to life for us in stunning and gruesome clarity. The Battle of the Bulge is not a battle I knew much about going into this, except to say that I remember seeing my grandpa watching a History Channel program about it once. I was glad to learn a bit more about it.
The story unfolds through the eyes of a female war correspondent, Annie March, and two Captains in the same division, Shaw and Adams, former college roommates and best friends. The “twin” themes of love and death are twins only in as far as they are a pair of themes and are mostly explored through the points of view of the two men, Adams and Shaw, referred to in the novel by Martha as “the twins.” Shaw and Adams are two men who maybe shouldn’t make sense as best friends because their personalities are night and day, but they are. They are two sides of the same coin. Both belong to the 101st Airborne Division, though only Shaw saw combat, while Adams specialized in intelligence and interrogation. Their two different jobs provide each with a very different war experience, and their different personalities and personal feelings influence their very different reactions to the events leading up to the battle.
“He said history doesn’t repeat itself,” Shaw told him. “But it rhymes.”
One of the plot points that intrigued me was the way hubris and arrogance can lead to a sort of complacency and the tendency to bury one’s head in the sand, so to speak. Here you have the men in the area, men who are paid to analyze strategies, men who have gotten to know the enemy and their strategies well, who are telling their higher ups that there is something not right, but the arrogance of those higher-ups at having so cleverly maneuvered an imminent end to the war, they refuse to see the facts presented to them as anything other than coincidence. In the instance of the Battle of the Bulge, that led to the death of many that could easily have been avoided, had the hubris of the generals not been so unyielding.
Martha had told her that Eros and Thanatos, Love and Death, stalked the fields of war, and Annie began to think she understood, though, of course, like all idealists, she misunderstood what was meant by love.
In the midst of war and so much death, you would think it impossible to find love. But still, as the author shows, it’s there, whether it is physical love in the curtains of the dance hall, romantic love kindled on the fringes of a battleground, fraternal love, love for country, and love for fellow man. But what of one’s capacity for love (or lack thereof) effecting their decisions, actions, their very soul? I don’t want to say too much and give it away, but allow me to say that this theme was so perfectly written that it made me want to cry.
History books telling about war would have you believe that there is always a clear line between right and wrong, who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, and a pervading sense of black and white. But in reality, as Byrd so adeptly shows here, war, like life, is just shades of gray. Mercy for your enemy can condemn to death friends and brothers in arms. Killing children, whether young teens conscripted to fight in a war that they could never prepare for, or non-combatants giving away military movements to the enemy, can be seen as justifiable and still chip away at the soul of a person, even when the action insures a successful mission which in turn saves countless lives. There is a reason so many soldiers come home after combat with PTSD. I really think that Byrd did a fantastic job both in portraying the gray area of right and wrong with Shaw’s character.
With all of that going on, there were points of levity sprinkled throughout to help with the heaviness of the story. I smiled to myself when I read the quote below, because I remember catching my Gram doing reciting that while she mimicked the motions described, even into her 70s. She was a unique and amazing woman, I’ll tell you, but I digress. The ease with which Byrd is able to weave these lighter aspects into the whole was well done and much appreciated.
She gave Annie’s chest a critical look. “You need to do this, Annie,” she said, then threw back her shoulders and began to rotate them, chanting under her breath, “You must, you must,/You must increase your bust!”
If I had to pick at anything, the cover left a little to be desired for me. While I can understand the photos that were used, they just don’t really make the book stand out very much. Had the author’s people not reached out to me to send me a copy, if instead I had glimpsed this in a bookstore, I doubt I would have given it a second look, if it ever got a first. While it’s true that you can’t judge a book by its cover, the cover is a first impression, and it needs to make one.
Reading this novel was like watching the tumblers on a lock fall into place. It was neatly and efficiently written, as Byrd laid the foundation and added each additional brick, sequentially working the themes of love and death into the entire fabric of the story in the most satisfying way. This is not a long, drawn-out dramatic novel, where you’re flipping pages furiously to see what inevitably happens at the end. Instead, it is more about what makes us human at the most fundamental level: our capacity to love. While the story doesn’t shy away from the gruesome reality of war or the death that surrounds it, the overarching theme of love offsets and outweighs its darker counterpart in the most beautiful way that only someone who has experienced many of the facets of the concept can understand.
This is a book that will stick with you. If you enjoy reading WWII lit, I encourage you to pick up a copy of this book.
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