REVIEW: V for Victory by Lissa Evans
In this witty, charming follow-up to the acclaimed Crooked Heart, the life of lies a small time scammer and her adopted son have constructed in London becomes endangered during the tumultuous final months of World War II.
It’s late 1944. Hitler’s rockets are raining down on London with vicious regularity and it’s the coldest winter in living memory. The Allies are gaining ground, but victory is certainly dragging its feet.
In a large house next to Hampstead Heath, Vee Sedge is barely scraping by with a herd of lodgers to feed and her young charge Noel, almost fifteen now, to clothe and educate. When she witnesses an accident and finds herself in court, the repercussions are both unexpectedly marvelous and potentially disastrous. Because Vee is not actually the person she’s pretending to be, and neither is Noel.
Victory is coming. Yet the end of the war won’t just mean peace, but discovery . . .
With caustic wit and artful storytelling, Lissa Evans summons a time when the world could finally hope to emerge from the chaos of war. As witty as Old Baggage and poignant as Crooked Heart, V for Victory once again reveals Evans to be one of the most original and entertaining writers at work today.
Dear Ms. Evans,
After I devoured “Crooked Heart,” I went straight to ask for access to this arc. Noel and Vee, an unlikely yet totally believable pair, had worked their way into my heart and I had to know what would happen next. I have a feeling that a lot of people are going to be very pleased when they read this book.
It’s late 1944 and everyone feels they’ve almost made it; the war has to be over soon. Yet things are dreary and the waiting is endless. The early war desperation and determination are almost burnt out; the rationing is numbing; it takes a heroic effort to keep struggling along and a new danger has taken the place of the Luftwaffe night raids. Vee and Noel are living in Green Shutters, the huge house on Hampstead Heath that he inherited from his godmother Mattie, along with a motley assortment of singletons who rent the spare rooms. Most of them tutor Noel in various subjects as when Vee asked him if he’d like to return to school, he’d replied that he’d rather clean Hitler’s WC.
Winnie Crowther has been an Air Raid Warden almost since the beginning of the war. Even with the nightly raids having ended, she and her crew still must work to help their fellow Londoners with the consequences of Hitler’s newest weapon. Once she wearily slogs home, she has to face another thing she’s come to dread – letters from her POW husband. Winnie and Emlynn met and married quickly, having only a few weeks together before he was captured at Dunkirk. Now after over four years, their correspondence has become an exchange of dull sameness consisting of Winnie downplaying any danger from her job and Emlynn relating in excruciating detail how he wants to furnish and decorate their future home.
The lodgers at Green Shutters all have their quirks and oddities but a blast of fresh air arrives in the person of Sergeant Mario O’Mahoney, an American Army truck driver who comes into Vee’s life due to the differences across the pond in driving. Along with giving access to the bountiful supplies the US forces have, he also starts to drive a moral wedge between Vee and Noel. But when someone else arrives at Green Shutters, suddenly Vee and Noel are dealing with more than boarders and buzz bombs.
“V for Victory” seems a quieter book to me than “Crooked Heart.” Though there is a lot going on, it focuses on the people and their emotions. Together for four years, Vee and Noel have settled into their fake relationship of “aunt” and “nephew.” Given Vee’s life and the fact that rarely have things gone her way, she remains prickly and on guard, at risk of panicking if it appears that her secret might be exposed. Noel is growing into a young man with a still cracking voice but one who can become terrified at the thought of losing another person he’s come to care for and depend on. Vee is nothing like Mattie but when faced with the way another mother and son interact, Noel knows that he’s been lucky with the two guardians in his life.
When Winnie and Noel meet, Noel finds another woman who knew Mattie back in the day and he soaks up everything Winnie remembers of her days as an “Amazon.” Mattie had led the group of girls, fearlessly imbuing them with her own spirit and independence. One of the other girls had effortlessly been able to puncture the pretensions of Winnie’s (not identical) twin who is now married to a government official and writing a torrid novel featuring a fictionalized air raid warden. It was here that Winnie also met her best friend, a girl who exposed Winnie to the reality of true poverty and who ended up helping Winnie more than she helped Elsie.
As in the first book, I laughed at the humor – testy from Vee, dry from Noel, quiet from several of the boarders, and exasperated from Winnie. A lot of issues are shown such as the British resentment and exploitation of Americans as well as the things the British faced after the war – lack of housing and jobs, different opportunities for women, having fought for better for yourself and your (future) children, and not being willing to accept what they or their parents had been fobbed off with after the Great War. Yeah, social change is coming.
I enjoyed these complex characters and the subtle ways we learn about them. Vee is still irascible and worried that everything she’s finally found might still be snatched away from her but she has enjoyed her new social position as someone to whom the women of the knitting circle look up to, someone whose opinions are sought. Noel has his first crush then unexpectedly meets a person who is later described as never having been prepared for when things got hard. A boarder tells Noel that not all parental figures are ones you want in your life and his description lets Noel know why the man has endlessly bored them with recitations and quotes. Winnie’s glamorous sister has always hogged the limelight but one night shows us Winnie’s strengths earned during years of battling bombed buildings to try and help save who she can. Another man publicly reacts in a way that others feel is due to his time in the trenches in France yet there is a darker reason that is truly behind it. And then there is the ghost of Mattie whom so many remember for her zest, spirit, and boundless enthusiasm.
The final chapters wrap up several things that have been carried across to this book but in a graceful and effortless way. Threads are gathered and woven together, showing us the final image. It’s all understated but more powerful for that.The research seems impeccable but never shoved into the story just to show it off. Vee is astounded when someone quietly tells her that they believe in her and are willing to stand behind her. Noel finally learns about his past and discovers more about how Mattie influenced lives. Winnie faces a future that might not be the bleak one she was fearing. I’m happy with how things end and where these characters are in their lives though if we were to see Noel tackle changes in the fifties, I wouldn’t mind. B+
Thanks for this review, I didn’t know this book was coming. I took Crooked Heart to heart, but didn’t care much for Old Baggage. I found those events in Mattie’s life too sad, and perhaps I was also missing the characters from Crooked Heart.
@LML: I was so happy to see Vee and Noel again. I have bought a copy of Old Baggage but just haven’t had a chance to get to it yet. Hope you enjoy this.