I will say this up front: I hate writing this kind of review, because I want to love every book I read and most especially when I did love the first two books in a trilogy. But I will also be honest: The FitzOsbornes at War did not work for me. Many (many many) others disagree with me and you may well too.
There are two strands to this book and I want to address each separately. First, there is the experience of living through WWII. Second, there is the family story–the FitzOsbornes growing up.
I’m taking the war strand first, because it’s where the story began, almost instantly, to crack for me. (I really like Karyn Silverman’s metaphor for reading books as a cracking windshield where you can ignore a little ding, but enough of them over time and the whole thing falls apart. Or a rock hits you and it falls apart immediately) And the timeline is the issue here. On 3 September 1939, the first day of the war, Sophie is talking about evacuations. Six days later, she and Veronica know about Britain interning foreign refugees. And this continues throughout the book–at the end, in 1944, Toby casually mentions radar, with no acknowledgement of the Official Secrets Act, of how incredibly important and secret radar was to the British war effort. Now, I am NOT an expert and it’s possible that by 1944 the secret was well and truly out. But all I really needed was a line from Toby to acknowledge that he was breaking the Official Secrets Act.*
Though these factual errors bothered me as a nitpicky history reader, what was really more of an issue was the sense that we were seeing the events of WWII as history, in hindsight, rather than really living through it with Sophie. Compared to Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear, which apparently have all kinds of factual errors, but which for me as a reader catch at the heart of what I love about the story of Britain during WWII, The FitzOsbornes at War is oddly flat and affectless. I mean, did I cry during the big twist? Yes. But that’s on the personal side of the story rather than the war story side. And usually you can say the word Coventry to me and watch me burst into tears–here I did not cry.
(I also couldn’t help noticing and wondering about the way that the Montmaravians seemed to function primarily as Britons, despite occasional rhetorical flourishes to the contrary. I wanted either more distinction there, or less.)
Then there is the family story side of the book. Here, I was much happier–Sophie is a lovely narrator and her struggles to find her place in the world and her family rang true. I did wish that part of Toby’s strand had been given a different timeline because it felt a bit shoehorned in. In general, I thought the pacing was a bit off, though Cooper may have been constrained by actual events here. But I was more invested in Sophie and Toby and Simon and Veronica and Henry, and I was generally pleased with how their different stories resolved, though I occasionally wanted a bit more about how they got there.
As a side note–I originally read this as an eARC from NetGalley. I wondered if I would like it better since there have been several books I read as eARCs which I subsequently read as print editions and enjoyed much more. But in this case my reaction is pretty much the same.
And I still really, really wish I could love this book.
Book source: NetGalley; public library
Book information: Knopf, 2012; YA
* As I said, for all I know, by 1944 the secret may have been out, but I’m also listening to the Code Name Verity audiobook and in 1943 Verity is agonizing over giving details of the early wireless network to the Germans.