Favorite World War II Novels

I was so excited thinking about other novels of WWII that I had to dedicate a whole post to it..

  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer – try not to become entranced as a young German soldier and French teenage girl’s fates become more and more entwined.

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

  • Charlotte Grey by Sebastian Faulks – a Scotswoman joins the French resistance – but is it to help the cause or to find the MIA airman who she loves? I love Sebastian Faulks! Birdsong is another great war novel, but set during WWI.

In blacked-out, wartime London, Charlotte Gray develops a dangerous passion for a battle-weary RAF pilot, and when he fails to return from a daring flight into France she is determined to find him. In the service of the Resistance, she travels to the village of Lavaurette, dyeing her hair and changing her name to conceal her identity. Here she will come face-to-face with the harrowing truth of what took place during Europe’s darkest years, and will confront a terrifying secret that threatens to cast its shadow over the remainder of her days. Vividly rendered, tremendously moving, and with a narrative sweep and power reminiscent of his novel Birdsong, Charlotte Gray confirms Sebastian Faulks as one of the finest novelists working today.

  • Suite Française by Irene NemirovskyConsidered Nemirovsky’s unfinished masterpiece, Suite Francaise is about the fall of Paris from the perspective of various characters in part 1, and then life in a small village outside of Paris under Nazi occupation in part 2 – this book is unfinished because Nemirovsky was deported and sent to Auschwitz where she died during the war. Her daughters discovered the manuscript in the 1990s and it was published in 2004.

Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940. Suite Française tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way: a wealthy mother searches for sweets in a town without food; a couple is terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, even as their world begins to fall apart. Moving on to a provincial village now occupied by German soldiers, the locals must learn to coexist with the enemy—in their town, their homes, even in their hearts.When Irène Némirovsky began working on Suite Française, she was already a highly successful writer living in Paris. But she was also a Jew, and in 1942 she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died. For sixty-four years, this novel remained hidden and unknown.

  • THE CAZALET CHRONICLES by Elizabeth Jane Howard – Read these 5 amazing books immediately. The story starts in 1937, and continues through the war and after it, chronicling the life of a large English family through the generations. My mom turned me onto this series, and it is beautiful and engaging and sad and inspiring. Ugh! One of my favorite favorite series ever. While it is set during WWII, the story takes place on the home front.

Here is a summary of Book 1, The Light Years:

In 1937, the coming war is only a distant cloud on Britain’s horizon. As the Cazalet households prepare for their summer pilgrimage to the family estate in Sussex, readers meet Edward, in love with but by no means faithful to his wife Villy; Hugh, wounded in the Great War; Rupert, who worships his lovely child-bride Zoe; and Rachel, the spinster sister.

This family will become your own. I have laughed and cried with these characters, oh I just love them.

  • Fortunes of War by Olivia Manning – this series became my life – I read these SIX novels as 2 trilogies The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, which I believe is how they are published now. When Manning first published them in the 1960s, I think they came individually.

The Balkan Trilogy is the story of a marriage and of a war, a vast, teeming, and complex masterpiece in which Olivia Manning brings the uncertainty and adventure of civilian existence under political and military siege to vibrant life. Manning’s focus is not the battlefield but the café and kitchen, the bedroom and street, the fabric of the everyday world that has been irrevocably changed by war, yet remains unchanged.

At the heart of the trilogy are newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle, who arrive in Bucharest—the so-called Paris of the East—in the fall of 1939, just weeks after the German invasion of Poland. Guy, an Englishman teaching at the university, is as wantonly gregarious as his wife is introverted, and Harriet is shocked to discover that she must share her adored husband with a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Other surprises follow: Romania joins the Axis, and before long German soldiers overrun the capital. The Pringles flee south to Greece, part of a group of refugees made up of White Russians, journalists, con artists, and dignitaries. In Athens, however, the couple will face a new challenge of their own, as great in its way as the still-expanding theater of war.

Not only is this about the war, but it is totally a book about marriage. I need to reread these, I think I was 18 or 19 when I first read them. Now I’m 26 and about to be married… isn’t it funny how differently you connect with a book when you read it at different ages?

And in part 2, The Levant Trilogy:

In The Levant Trilogy Olivia Manning returns to the story of the young English couple Guy and Harriet Pringle, last seen, at the end of The Balkan Trilogy, departing from Athens ahead of the invading Nazi army. Now, in the spring of 1941, they arrive in Egypt as Rommel’s forces slowly but surely approach Cairo across the Sahara from the west. Will the city fall? In the streets the people contemplate welcoming a new set of occupiers, while European refugees and well-heeled Anglo-Egyptians prepare to pack their bags. And at night, everyone who is anyone flocks to the city’s famed hotels and seedy cabarets, seeking one last dance before the tanks roll in.

Manning describes the Pringles’ ever complicated marriage and their motley group of friends and foes with the same sharp eye that earned The Balkan Trilogy a devoted following. And she also traces the fortunes of a marvelously drawn new character, Simon Boulderstone, a twenty-year-old recruit who must grapple with the boredom, chaos, and fleeting exhilaration of war.

Whew! What a post! But I just had to share these amazing novels. Some of these reads were (dare I say?) life changing for me. They are all very tied up in my sense of self, I think because I read most of them for the first time between the ages of 17 and 21. I have reread The Cazalet Chronicles many times, the books are like visiting old friends, or returning to a favorite vacation spot. The Fortunes of War I need to reread. All the Light We Cannot See has a lot of hype surrounding it, but it is completely deserved.

Someone, please read some of these so I have a friend to talk about them with.

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