With Lovely War, Julie Berry offers up an Aeneid for the 21st century.
On a cold December night in 1942, Aphrodite and Ares are entrapped by Hephaestus in a swanky Manhattan hotel. There, the goddess of love spins a tale of war-torn romance in an effort to avoid facing judgment for her infidelities on Mount Olympus. She casts her eye back to 1917 to weave the stories of Hazel, an aspiring classical pianist; James, a British soldier days away from being shipped off to war; Aubrey, a Harlem-born ragtime genius and U.S. Army soldier; and Colette, a Belgian orphan who has lost everything in the war. Aphrodite recounts their epic romances, from first meeting to flutters of excitement and self-doubt to the pangs of separation and fear of lost love and beyond. While Aphrodite’s narration fills the course of a single night, she covers more than a year of her subjects’ lives as they encounter hope, heartbreak, racism, fear, trauma, and more.
This tradition — of the Greek gods telling stories of the mortals whose fates they hold in their hands — dates back centuries, and Berry makes it feel both timeless and startlingly fresh. We think of these mythic beings as belonging to a time long-past, their fickle natures and awe-inducing powers dictacting the lives of Odysseus, Perseus, Helen of Troy, Hector, and Achilles. It’s almost odd to imagine their capriciousness, their sense of justice, and their passion playing a role in something so epic and unendurably human as the first World War (and the second, for that matter). Yet Berry perfectly merges these two worlds, trading their togas for two-tone shoes and A-line dresses. The gods are every inch what we remember them from classical mythology — Aphrodite, vivacious and erotic; Ares, hot-tempered and cruel; Hephaestus, gruff and slovenly — while taking on a literary elegance and lilting quality unique to Berry’s writing. Whatever muse is singing in Berry to produce her lyrical writing, we’d like to lobby for their services.
The story itself is intoxicating. Alongside the other gods she holds in thrall, Aphrodite enraptures the reader, the twists and turns of her lovers’ stories both unexpected and true to the sobering realities of so many who lived through the Great War. Her research is impeccable, but it never overrides the breathless sensation that we are accompanying the gods along on a wisp of air, flitting in and out of the tragedies and triumphs of these individual’s lives. Occasionally, the other gods’ reactions to Aphrodite’s stories, their tears in particular, feel manufactured, outweighing the response of the reader. It’s hard to know if that’s intentional or a clever bit of emotional manipulation designed to make a reader feel a moment more deeply. Usually, though, it has the opposite effect and undercuts something that slices deep without any added maudlin pathos.
The narrative framework and the themes Berry explores through these icons of mythology pack more of a punch than the individual details of these lovers’ lives. By using figures like the god of war and god of love, Berry personifies truths of the human experience, demonstrating how they are inextricably intertwined. War amplifies love, making it burn brighter, quicker, and more intensely — and though it threatens to swallow it participants whole, it is love, always, that transcends and endures.
The novel is a gripping wartime love story, but it’s also an original, breathtaking examination of how humanity’s ills, from violence to racism, are conquered by our better tendencies: friendship, passion, empathy, and deep, tender, true love. Whether you believe in God(s) or not, Lovely War is a compelling take on fate, loss, and hope — and how when everything else hangs in the balance, love resounds as the most complicated, mystifying, resilient force of all. A–
More book reviews: