I've had good luck these past few months with some wonderful debut novels by some very promising authors. Jennifer Robson's first novel, Somewhere in France, keeps that streak alive and well. It is being touted in the promotional material as a book fans of Downton Abbey will love. I find that characterization a bit limiting. If you like good historical fiction with strong, able characters and an exciting, perilous setting with a believable love story thrown in for good measure, you will love Somewhere in France, even if you have yet to watch an episode of Downton. The only similarities between this novel and that series are the general time period, the Great War (which lasted less than a season in Downton time), and one character from an aristocratic background who yearns to make a contribution and decides to move beyond the role to which society has assigned her. That would be about it. Yes, the Downton allure may be a strong one, but this novel can stand (and sell) all on its own.
Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford has always felt like there should be more to her life than a debutante season and marriage shortly thereafter. As a young girl, she meets her brother Edward's school friend, Robbie Fraser, and she first reveals to him her desire for a stronger education. Robbie encourages her to pursue her dream. Years later, as war bears down on them, they meet again at a ton ball. Attracted to the woman Lilly has become, Robbie, now an accomplished surgeon, once again encourages her to follow her aspirations to do something worthwhile with her life.
What Robbie doesn't expect is for Lilly to volunteer as an ambulance driver and plunge herself into the turmoil and peril that is France and the Western Front during the Great War. Finding themselves in close proximity at the same Casualty Clearing Station, Robbie, now a field surgeon, must set aside his feelings and fear for Lilly if he is to do his job without distraction. Lilly, angry and confused, and constrained by the strict rules against fraternization, has no choice but to try to forget Robbie; ignore him as he has chosen to ignore her. Until the horrors of war touch them both, and everything changes.
Somewhere in France is a story as much or more about relationships and loyalty as it is about the changing mores of the time period in which it is written; Lilly and Edward; Edward and Robbie, Robbie and Lilly, their lives all circle around each other, against the ever present backdrop and horrors of war. Ms. Robson's secondary characters add a dimension to the story that reveals just how far Lilly has traveled from the persona of an earl's cossetted daughter. It's quite a transformation, and it's only one facet of the novel that grabs the reader's interest and doesn't let go.
I really hope the wait will not be long until Ms. Robson's second effort. Intelligently written, beautifully descriptive and fast-paced, Somewhere in France will appeal to Downton fans, but everyone who reads it, Downton fan or not, will love it. Highly recommend.