Review: Lauren Willig’s TWO WARS AND A WEDDING

Two_Wars_WeddingIf a novel ever needed an HEA, Lauren Willig’s prosaically-titled Two Wars and a Wedding does. A multi-hanky read, indeed. A historical saga and sweeping one at that (more sagas, please!): recounting a young woman’s journey from immature and impetuous to worn-down, guilt-ridden, and broken to strong, resolute, and happy across “two wars and a wedding”. And did it ever keep me reading, as steadily as Real Life would allow, over three days. To start, let’s fill in the war and wedding details with the publisher’s blurb:

September 1896: As an aspiring archaeologist, Smith College graduate Betsy Hayes travels to Athens, desperate to break into a very male-dominated field and find work at some of the world’s most famous excavation sites. In the midst of the heat and dust of Greece she finds an unlikely ally in philanthropist Charles, Baron de Robecourt, one of the few men who takes her academic passion seriously. But when a simmering conflict between Greece and Turkey erupts into open warfare, Betsy’s archaeological sites become battlefields and she falls into the grim and heroic task of nursing the wounded. As the world around her is irrevocably changed, Betsy finds her heart pulled in multiple directions.

June 1898: As the Spanish-American war begins, an older and wiser Betsy Hayes is searching for her former best friend Ava, who she last saw in Greece during the Greco-Turkish War. She believes that Ava might be with the Red Cross headed to Cuba, so Betsy herself joins the Red Cross and follows Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders straight to the heart of the fighting. As she enters the war zone, dark memories of her last war resurface and her need to protect old and new friends intensifies.

Willig’s novel has a clunky narrative structure, but I can see why it would be necessary to include everything she wanted to. While overwhelmingly told in the third person, it includes letters (obviously first-person) from Betsy to Ava as they tear apart and put together their friendship. Later, in the novel’s Cuban-set second half, Betsy meets Kit Carson, a woman reporter and the narrative then also includes Kit’s dispatches. Later, even further into the novel, we read the U.S. government report that investigates negligence on board hospital ships to which Betsy is indictor and witness. So, A LOT going on (remember, saga!). Willig has done the best she can to cram as much historical detail as possible. As her author’s note attests, Betsy is a composite-portrait of two historical women, a nurse and journalist, and their combined experiences could have filled a novel way longer than this one. While the POVs, genres, and flashbacks make for abrupt shifts, they do contract the narrative details to a manageable length. They also keep the reader on her toes: putting the pieces of Betsy’s compelling life together.

And what a life it is! I couldn’t believe, again thanks to the author’s note, how much these women accomplished and at a time and places where women’s lives were as constricted and constrained as their clothing. While I was fascinated by Betsy’s experiences, I was dissatisfied with her characterization, that is, with the purely “fictional” part of Willig’s narrative. Betsy arrives in Athens, if not spoiled (beloved mother and father dead, sole family a judgmental, unsympathetic brother and sister-in-law) then privileged and ignorant, determined to convince her archaeology professors to let her lead a dig. She’s impulsive, petulant, and immature. She also writes again and again to Ava to join her in Athens, even though Ava’s impoverished Boston-brahmin family can’t afford to pay her way. Still, Betsy persists and pays for Ava to join her. Meanwhile, Betsy travels to various sites and harangues many a professor, she also begins a relationship with Charles. Without spoiling for the reader, not a good idea for many reasons. Ava warns Betsy and they quarrel. As a lark and in an attempt to spend time with Ava, Betsy enrolls in a nursing course, which she fails, and then, calling on her privilege, becomes part of the nursing corps in the Greco-Turkish War. Ava and she fall out and Ava returns home. Betsy’s Greek war-time experiences are harrowing, but they also humble and mature her. 

That problem I mentioned? Betsy goes from immature and superficial to serious and guilt-ridden. She takes everything on herself: the wounded, Charles, Ava…she’s at fault and she will fix it. She goes from being exuberant and reckless to martyred, skipping responsible and measured. But this let’s call it zealotry makes her a heroine, which we see even more evidence of when she arrives in Cuba, yes to find Ava and save her from certain death in the eponymous second war, also to nurse the wounded. Which she does selflessly, without food or sleep for weeks. Betsy’s experiences are tragic, heart-breaking, personally and in terms of what she witnesses and has to do as a nurse. She takes the blame for everything: where she was reckless, she is now martyred. I had a hard time with Betsy’s relentless self-martyrdom and inability to distinguish between what was her “fault” and what lay beyond her powers of control, or agency.

Amidst all the harrowing Cuban experiences, Hold’em Holt comes into her life. Holt too holds self-blame and difficult experiences, but their occasional banter and growing friendship lightens what would be a bleak narrative indeed. Unlike Betsy, Holt comes to see what he can and cannot control and is better able to put life in perspective. He’s also a wonderful hero to Betsy who, frankly, no matter my quibble with her, deserves a happy ending like no one. Life has dealt her big blows. Holt is perfect for her: knows exactly how to love her, without crowding her, giving her confidence and support, acknowledging her need for independence and purpose, paving her way without taking her agency. Betsy softens in the light of his love and compassion and their HEA, finally, thank the romance gods Willig is still willing to nod to, is wonderful.

Willig’s Two Wars and A Wedding isn’t perfect, but it’s compelling reading, with a difficult-to-like heroine, an easy-to-love hero and fascinating historical contexts. Miss Austen would agree, it’s evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.

Lauren Willig’s Two Wars and A Wedding is published by William Morrow and releases today, March 21st. I received an e-ARC from William Morrow, via Edelweiss Plus, for the purpose of writing this review, which does not impede the free expression of my honest opinion. (Final note: that’s a stunning cover; well done, William Morrow!)

4 thoughts on “Review: Lauren Willig’s TWO WARS AND A WEDDING

  1. Lovely review. Yet another book that I have on reserve at the library. So I am waiting, waiting, for them to say ‘come pick it up’. Sigh…
    At least I now know that the book will be worth the wait.
    Thank you.


    1. Thank you and you’re welcome, of course! I hope it comes through for you soon and that you have uninterrupted time to enjoy it…well, with many a hanky on hand…


  2. Just finished this–and, Oh my! what a story. I loved it.
    I didn’t have a real problem with Betsy’s tendency to blame herself for things that she had no control over. After all, her awful brother had been telling her (and thus blaming her), for years, that she ‘killed their mother’. Then he piled on and blamed her for their father’s death, too. I doubt it was easy to maintain any level of common sense under such life-long harassment.
    I really appreciate that Willig is willing to give us heroines who start the book difficult to like (see The Summer Country, for example). Then she sends them on a fraught journey, strewn with difficulties, which leads to their growth and redemption. and thus their emergence into a better, happier life.
    I loved Holt, too. He was another damaged soul and so kind. (and almost too perfect for Betsy. But that’s okay, she earned their HEA.)
    I haven’t read ‘Band of Sisters’, but I’m not sure I’m ready for another ‘nursing on the battlefield’ story right now. Maybe later…


    1. I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it! I totally get your point about Betsy’s self-blame: it’s a very good one. I also agree about The Summer Country, a book I didn’t think got the love it deserves. I would still say The English Wife is her best thus far, but Two Wars comes as a close second.

      “Almost too perfect for Betsy”, LOL, yes! When he shows up at the end in his boater and cane, SWOON-lovely. And Betsy went through the wringer, so yes, she kind of deserves Holt by the end and Holt deserves to be with the woman he loves, though he’ll always be lovelier. That’s okay, the HEA is believable and worthy of celebration. I was also glad to see that Betsy really did want to excavate and it wasn’t just a whim.

      Though I have Band in the TBR and I was intrigued by the author’s note: it’s a nope for me too for the time being.


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