As World War II draws closer and closer to Guernsey, Vivienne de la Mare knows that there will be sacrifices to be made. Not just for herself, but for her two young daughters and for her mother-in-law, for whom she cares while her husband is away fighting. What she does not expect is that she will fall in love with one of the enigmatic German soldiers who take up residence in the house next door to her home. As their relationship intensifies, so do the pressures on Vivienne. Food and resources grow scant, and the restrictions placed upon the residents of the island grow with each passing week. Though Vivienne knows the perils of her love affair with Gunther, she believes that she can keep their relationship--and her family--safe. But when she becomes aware of the full brutality of the Occupation, she must decide if she is willing to risk her personal happiness for the life of a stranger.
This bit of WW2 fiction opens during the summer of 1940 on the island of Guernsey (Britian's Channel Islands). Vivienne is a mother of 2 girls: one still in her single digit years, one a teen. While Vivienne awaits the return of her soldier husband, she works through each day's hours holding down the homefront --- taking care of her girls, looking after her mother-in-law who seems to be showing early signs of approaching dementia, and squeezing in social visits with her neighbor, Angie.
The reader learns that Vivienne's marriage is not the romantic image one might initially craft of the patient military wife. Though dutiful in her responsibilities, Vivienne's thoughts give the reader the impression that her marriage might have been one of convenience more than anything else. She admits to feeling little to no passion around her mister and may even have caught him in a moment of infidelity prior to his going off to war.
Vivienne also reveals that she had opportunity to escape the island prior to the German occupation, but made the choice to ride the situation out, whatever may come. Though her choice doesn't put her in immediate danger, it definitely has its challenges. While it's not all bad -- the Germans bring chocolates and medical care readily available for everyone on the island via Dr. Max Richter, who comes in with the army -- pretty quickly there are new rules. The German army immediate sets up curfews for the Guernsey residents, a rule that proves to be quite a headache for Vivienne one night when one of her daughters goes missing.
Naturally our concerned momma bear shuns the curfew rule for the sake of her child's safety. Vivienne suffers a mild reprimand for her actions, but the whole incident leads to an introduction between her and Captain Gunther Lehmann of the German Army, a meeting which, over time, leads to a relationship (illicit though it may be) that offers Vivienne the kind of affectionate bond she deeply craves.
Margaret Leroy's writing style itself is quite rich and beautiful here, it's just the plot itself I found a little on the bland side. There were certainly moments that had a strong pull on me -- particularly one moment near the end that's full of tension & sadness -- I just didn't experience that pull all the way through. Though I did finish the novel, I was hoping for some stronger intensity between some of the characters. The major strength of The Soldier's Wife is its unique perspective on the challenges people of the era might have had to work around. The kitchen descriptions especially stuck with me: having to make meal after meal out of little more than parsnips (because, at times, that may be all that was available) or trying to brew coffee with a brass can oil lamp!
Another important takeaway that can resonate with today's readers is the transformation with the maturity level of some of the characters. The early chapters introduce us to certain British citizens soured by bad experiences involving a few German soldiers, which leads to a "one bad German = all Germans are bad" mindset already brewing at story's start. But time proves to these characters that such thinking is, in fact, toxic and that the poor choices of one should not unfairly condemn a race / nationality as a whole.