The Return of the Soldier (Virago Modern Classics) - Rebecca West

This book didn't start very promisingly. I'm not immediately inclined to follow along with the reflections of a narrator whose sole self-appointed task was to create a comfortable nest for the splendid, great, amazing, etc. man she selflessly adored, who was satisfied with "the way that in the midst of entertaining a great company he would smile secretly to us, as though he knew we would not cease in our task of refreshing him"; who said that "nothing could ever really become a part of our life until it had been referred to Chris's attention"; who was happiest when he showed his contentment by comfortably ignoring her. Would the book ever cast doubt on the assumption of narrator, Chris's cousin Jenny, that Chris deserved all this just by right of being manly and splendid, and that she, his wife Kitty, and his old love Margaret, should make all possible sacrifices for him? Or on Margaret, a strong, intelligent, and interesting person, never questioning that her only role in life is to make some husband (Chris or the man she actually married) happy? No, not at any point.

However, the greatest factor taking the pleasure out of reading this novel was its elaborated, precious style. Though, to be sure, no fiction ever contains people talking exactly as they do in real life, it's particularly jarring to hear characters talking like this: "'Oh, I know you think I was rude,' she petulantly moaned, 'but you're so slow, you don't see what it means. Either it means that he's mad, our Chris, our splendid sane Chris, all broken and queer, not knowing us... I can't bear to think of that...'" People in this book not only moan petulantly, they wail weakly, crouch agonizedly, utter fretful outbursts, and so forth. The narrator frequents the lofty heights of observations about people's souls and the essence of their lives when she's not losing herself in overheated forebodings. It's always unnatural and, though not nearly as purple as many books of its time, at least faintly violet.

Buried under all this is a really touching love story: the tragedy of two lovers torn apart by circumstances, who can't come together again except during a fleeting space of illusion. Then, too, the main theme of the book is a very interesting one: that you can't live on illusion. Jenny thought in the beginning that Chris had everything he could want, until Margaret's love showed her that the comfort and beauty she and Kitty provided were really worth little. But the resurrection of the old love, in the face of all reality, was not an option either. In the end both illusions were destroyed and nothing remained but bitterness, though the dignity of facing the truth squarely provided some compensation.

Some books outlast the era when they were written and have much to offer later readers; The Return of the Soldier is not such a book, in my opinion. Its notions about what it means to "be a man" are not modern ones, but that matters less than the fact that its writing style has just not aged well.