When the World Was Young: A Novel by Elizabeth Gaffney
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Elizabeth Gaffney's "When the World Was Young," set for release in August 2014, is a novel that I wanted to like. The setting in 1940s and '50s Brooklyn Heights seemed interesting, and the advance praise seems to promise a meaty book about passion, secrets, prejudice, and the connections between upstairs and downstairs worlds. But unfortunately, I found the book rather flat, with lackluster characters and an often tedious plot.
The story centers on a girl named Wally growing up in Brooklyn during World War II. Wally is a rather unusual and interesting child, fascinated in equal measure by Wonder Woman comics and science; her closest childhood friend is Ham, the son of her grandparents' African American maid, Loretta. With her father away fighting in the Pacific, Wally's mother Stella returns to medical school, and takes in a mysterious boarder named Mr. Niederman. The boarder, whom we later learn worked on the Manhattan Project, becomes a sort of father figure for Wally. He and Stella embark upon an affair which leads, eventually, to tragedy. The rest of the novel follows Wally as she grows into adulthood, living with the aftermath of her mother's difficult choice and struggling to find her way in the world.
To be fair, the book captivated me in the opening scenes, particularly the celebrations of the community on VJ Day. The relationships between Wally's family members, and their complex ties with the family of their African American maid, hold some interest. But the plot begins to feel formulaic as the novel progresses.
Many of the characters are not fully developed, so it is difficult to feel an emotional connection with them. Wally's grandmother and Loretta are key figures in Wally's life, so I was disappointed that Gaffney drew them with such a broad brush. The character of Wally's mother, Stella, is particularly unconvincing. Gaffney tells us that Stella is a strong, educated, and unconventional woman who loves her daughter fiercely, so her bad decisions seem unlikely and out of character.
There were a few times that I almost gave up on the novel because Gaffney dwells so much on Wally and Ham's fascination with ants. Wally's entomological interest could have been conveyed in a sentence or two, but there are long passages about the queen, the workers, etc, that perhaps should have been cut in a round of tough-love editing.
"When the World Was Young" may garner an audience, especially from readers particularly interested in the time period or Brooklyn. But with so many other intriguing works of fiction slated for summer release, I would not make a special effort to recommend this novel.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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