Top critical review
If I Were You, I Would...Hmmm...
Reviewed in the United States on July 6, 2020
If I were you, would I read this book or not? That's a good question. Lynn Austin's latest is tough to pin down. She's a good writer, as she has proven to me more than once, and this book has a lot of things to like about it. But there are also some fairly significant issues, so...well, let's just start with the good stuff.
Main characters Audrey and Eve are two of the best parts of If I Were You. Their friendship is a type I have seen before--the high-class society girl and the scullery maid (or sometimes, whatever the equivalent is). But Lynn made the friendship its own, by giving Audrey and Eve distinct personalities and ways to connect. For example, the braver Eve showing Audrey how to be courageous feels familiar. But the fact that she would do this by having Audrey hold dead beetles--objects used to bully her--is unique to them. The fact that Eve would comfort Audrey with strawberries is unique to them. So too, is the fact that Audrey would use her privilege and spoiled nature more often to Eve's advantage than her own.
I also loved how the friendship was asked, indeed required, to blossom or die in the course of World War II. The best and most enduring relationships don't get that way except through testing. But then again, how many of us can say we've sailed a boat across foreign, or at least unfamiliar, waters in wartime with our best friend? How many of us can say our friendship was tested because one of our mothers was killed in a bombing--because she wouldn't leave the other friend's totally self-absorbed mother? Scenes like that crop up often and are quite powerful. I enjoyed the way Eve and Audrey spent the book being pushed together, then pulled apart, over and over again. It could get a little wearing, but the fact that they remained steadfast always kept me interested.
World War II is clearly researched and done justice here, without being at all dry. The Blitz scenes in particular gave me a new respect for what the British people went through during those years. Audrey and Robert's relationship offered a fresh look at war brides (I particularly loved their hospital room wedding; if he marries you in a leg cast, during war, he obviously LOVES you. Swoon)! And, while Eve's actions weren't ideal--actually, sometimes Audrey's weren't either--they provided some good juxtaposition between the reality of human fragility, vs. the grace and mercy of God.
Finally, I liked how Lynn handled the issue of the haves and have nots without being preachy. That is, it's clear that Audrey is "victimized" in her privilege, but still has a lot to learn about real life. As another reviewer said, serving others because of a love for God is very different from treating people as "othered," which we shouldn't do. By the same token, Eve has every right to play the victim as the impoverished and disadvantaged half of the friends--and sometimes she does. But the lessons they learn about each other's lack or privilege come in organic ways, like when Audrey has to adjust to Army service or Eve realizes how love-starved Audrey is. These things are written in such a way that even 2020 readers can learn from them instead of saying, "Well, that's obvious, don't shove it down my throat."
So, with all that said, why only three stars? A big part of it is the length. Four hundred fifty-five pages to tell one, technically two, stories? I mean, I like long novels, but this one felt 150 pages too long. Especially during the last quarter, which I mostly skimmed, Lynn seemed to go over the same information and emotions again and again. Also, because I knew where and how Eve and Audrey would end up, sometimes the flashback scenes got boring.
I also feel that the switch between Eve and Audrey was unnecessary, or failing that, clumsily handled. Even knowing Eve was the pretender, I found myself getting confused as to who was supposed to be whom, when and where. The fact that the women named their sons Robbie and Bobby didn't help. It felt like they were trying to meld into one person or something, which just didn't work. Also, since so little time was spent in the 1950 arc, I felt like the story was "front-loaded" with the main conflict, an elephant nobody seemed to acknowledge the right way.
Finally, I felt the spiritual thread needed some work. There are some great moments, such as toward the end when all is forgiven...but that comes across as too neat, too tied up in a pretty bow. There are also moments where we're meant to understand Eve has a more solid faith than Audrey--but then she's the one expressing anger at God and having an affair. Again, it's realistic for what she's dealing with, but it also makes the story seem less about spirituality and redemption than survival on human terms. That is, neither woman seems too invested or interested in faith until the very end, so I felt cheated.
So again, if I were you, would I read this? Well, that's up to you. If you say yes, I can't say you'll regret it. I would, however, advise pacing yourself, and knowing what you will and will not get going in. There is a preview of Lynn's next book in the back, which sounds much better, though. So I haven't given up on her at all; this one just wasn't a favorite.