Somewhere in France

Overview

As John Rolfe Gardiner's new novel opens, World War I is raging and letters home from Major William Lloyd describe his life as a volunteer doctor in charge of a base hospital in the "zone of advance.". "On the home front, the doctor's anxious wife, Emma, has troubles of her own. Her daunting mother-in-law has moved the family to her Long Island estate to escape city germs. Her two sons, one of enlistment age, are developing alarming pacifist sympathies, and the flag-waving chauffeur is spreading rumors about ...
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Overview

As John Rolfe Gardiner's new novel opens, World War I is raging and letters home from Major William Lloyd describe his life as a volunteer doctor in charge of a base hospital in the "zone of advance.". "On the home front, the doctor's anxious wife, Emma, has troubles of her own. Her daunting mother-in-law has moved the family to her Long Island estate to escape city germs. Her two sons, one of enlistment age, are developing alarming pacifist sympathies, and the flag-waving chauffeur is spreading rumors about them. Her teenage daughter is growing up too fast.. "But it's the doctor's correspondence from "somewhere in France" that most disturbs, with its frequent mention of the remarkable French nurse, Jeanne Prie. Gradually the doctor's obsession with Jeanne becomes clear to everyone but himself. And when his son is drafted and follows him to France, and when the nurse's audacious experiments involve her in controversy, the situation spins out of control, forever changing all their lives.. "Somewhere in France is a riveting tale of medical suspense, a portrait of a society in transition, and an affecting love story that explores the mysteries of trust and faith.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Perhaps better known as a short story writer than a novelist (In the Heart of the Whole World), Gardiner uses a disarmingly plain style with which to tell a strange and complex story. Major William Lloyd is an Army doctor in WWI, doing his best to cope with the flood of injured at his base hospital in France, many of them also affected by the mysterious new viruses carried by battlefield lice. Jeanne Prie is his invaluable French-born, German-speaking assistant, who in her earlier work with leading medical scientists of the day has come to understand better than he the way fevers work in the blood, and how to create serums to combat them. (She is also not averse to being thought of as a kind of Jeanne d'Arc.) Together they forge a relationship that Lloyd's mother, Helen, and his wife, Emma, reading his letters back home in Long Island, see as obsessive. The family also has its own obsessions: volatile Emma is struggling with dictatorial Helen; they must cope with a devious chauffeur, and decide whether or not to light an oddly symbolic annual Fourth of July bonfire. Lloyd's pacifist son is drafted, arrested in France for his antiwar sentiments and nearly dies, only to be saved by Jeanne's ministrations. Lloyd can never again settle down at home after the war, when his family begins to quarrel over the estate. Heading back to France, he begins a long and sometimes dangerous pilgrimage that eventually returns him to Jeanne's side; but in an epilogue she appears as mysterious and difficult to characterize as ever. It is a bizarre tale of seemingly plain people driven by extraordinary passions, but the artless style seems at odds with the drama of the events, so that, despite some occasionally vivid scenes, they never quite come into focus. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
As Maj. William Lloyd begins his service as a U.S. Army doctor in a small village in France, his loved ones endure their own hardships stateside. It is 1917, and Lloyd's mother has moved his wife and three children to her Long Island estate to shield them from the flu epidemic. Lloyd's two sons are driving their mother and grandmother to distraction with their pacifist rhetoric, the servants are spreading locally damaging rumors about the family, and the doctor's letters home are disturbing. While he reassures his family that he is stationed out of harm's way, his letters indicate a growing obsession with a French nurse whose unsanctioned medical research is both scandalous and phenomenally successful. Gardiner, winner of a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writer's Award and the author of six novels, has written a suspenseful work highlighting society's transition in the wake of World War I.--Margaret A. Smith, Grace A. Dow Memorial Lib., Midland, MI Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
By Gardiner (In the Heart of the Whole World, 1988, etc.), a complex, often startling tale about the nature of loyalty (to family, to the state, to an ideal) and on medicine's struggle to master disease. In France, at the end of WWI, Major William Lloyd, a bright, energetic, progressive doctor, struggles to run a hospital for Allied wounded. The supply officer, however, is blithely corrupt, siphoning off money and the best food for himself and his cronies. Lloyd finds an unlikely ally in a taciturn French nurse, Jeanne, who has remarkable skill at tending men and a shrewd eye for diagnosing the many ills set in motion by wounds or disease. Gradually, Lloyd discovers that she is, in fact, an extraordinarily gifted, and obsessed, medical researcher who has worked for Louis Pasteur and has created serums that may actually control the infections raging among the wounded. Lloyd finds himself falling in love with Jeanne, and matters grow more complex when his eldest son, William, is drafted. An opponent of the war, son William runs afoul of authority when he's shipped off to Europe. Arrested for his outspoken pacifism, he falls ill in a French prison and ends up in his father's hospital, close to death. One of Jeanne's serums might save him, but can Lloyd bring himself to experiment on his son? And, the war over, can he part from Jeanne? Gardiner's character portraits are penetrating, as is his dissection of William's agony over his divided loyalties. But Jeanne remains an unlikely figure, part mystic, part driven scientist. And William's passion is baffling. Indeed, many of the characters are lucid in their thoughts but enigmatic in their actions, and the ending, unfortunately, seems bothabrupt and too relentlessly downbeat, as if the author were trying too hard to assign fortunes and fates. Yet the portrait of wartime France is convincing, and Gardiner's meditations on the obligations of medicine and on the nature of familial love remain original and moving.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375407406
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/7/1999
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.63 (w) x 9.65 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Meet the Author

John Rolfe Gardiner is the author of three previous novels -- Great Dream from Heaven, Unknown Soldiers, and In the Heart of the Whole World -- and two collections of stories, Going On Like This and The Incubator Ballroom. He is the winner of a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writer's Award. His stories frequently appear in The New Yorker.

        He lives in Unison, Virginia, with his wife and his daughter.

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Read an Excerpt

On October 3, 1917, a few days before his American medical team arrived to join him in Chaumont, Major Lloyd entered the Hôtel Rive Haute for a final inspection. As a roving officer of the Chief Surgeon's staff, he had requisitioned the building for Base Hospital 15 of the Allied Expeditionary Force. A few French casualties were temporarily in beds on the ground floor, attended by a single French doctor.
        From somewhere inside, a husky voice rang through the marble columns and echoed in the stairways:
"Where is the pity for those who have none,
Who can forgive what the Germans have done?"
        "Be quiet!" he called out.
        The singing continued, and he cocked his ear for its direction.
        "Quiet, I said! This is the commanding officer!"
        Only for another day, until Colonel Hanson arrived.
        "This is a hospital!"
        The song was finished, but a humming continued. The Major despised this sort of insolence. He came through a doorway at the back of the lobby, into a large bathroom. A small fellow was on his knees, scrubbing the floor. The man stopped, did not turn, but gazed upward with a saintly patience at the urinal in front of him. There was a powerful smell of ammonia around him. It was perfume to the Major's sense of hygiene. This, and the picture of the poor man at his thankless task, turned the officer's mood, filled him with pity andself-reproach.
        Good enough, he thought, the man must come with the building. I'll make a place for him in the table of organization. "Well done. What's your name?"
        Still he would not look up, but went back to his chore. His exertions had pulled the shirt from his trousers, exposing his back. Closer, Major Lloyd saw that he'd been quite mistaken. He was staring down at a woman's waist and hip. Quickly, he turned away, and asked again, "But who are you?"
        The deep voice, the pants, military-issue, and the rolled sleeves. All this and the bobbed black hair had deceived him. At last she turned to him. Her lively round face was red, and wet with perspiration; her large gray eyes, accusing.
        "My name is Jeanne Prie," she said. "I am a nurse. I will work for you, if you please. But not in such filth."
        At the Major's request, she did stay on after the French patients had left. And on. Without the usual papers or references because she so clearly knew what she was about, and worked harder than any two others. For several months, there was only brief mention of the nurse as "my French wonder" in Major Lloyd's mail home, though she was making a name for herself through all ranks of the hospital.
        Within a year, the Major's family could sense her presence and influence in all his news, even when her name was not written. By then, Lloyd knew that her presentation of herself as a charwoman on her knees had been a clever bit of theater to ensure herself a part in the coming practice of military medicine in Chaumont.

October 20, 1917
Somewhere in France
        The rear of an army in battle is the most discouraging sight. The Adjutant here, a bad penny from my school days, is the worst sort of scoundrel and ought to be horsewhipped. The nurses, even the untrained, do adequate work, though the morals of my Americans are sometimes lax. We have a French wonder who puts them all to shame. The hospital's enlisted men are sluggards. The German prisoners, the intelligent ones, believe their cause lost, and only fight on to inflict as much damage on the world as possible.
        
Dr. Lloyd's observations pressed against the censors' nets like determined Sargasso eels, and many passed through, making their way across the Atlantic to the Lloyd drawing room in Manhattan. Here they wriggled under the watering eyes of his wife and mother, as the women thought again of the husband's, the son's, honorable duty and danger.
        The two were eager to share whatever words survived. Once a week, or once a month--the irregularity of delivery was unconscionable--the widow-mother, Mrs. Helen Livingston Lloyd, would arrive in the city from the old family plantation at Moriches on the South Shore of Long Island, carrying another letter, or at least a tin of pastries to sweeten the commiseration with her daughter-in-law, Emma.
        "Why does he write so misshapenly?" Emma scolded on one of these visits.
         "A pretty script is only a vanity," the older woman, pulling irritably at the retractable chain of her pince-nez, defended her boy. Years earlier when she had asked the same question, one of his schoolmasters had said, "A true intellect rushes on with what it has to say without stopping to admire its penmanship." He had nothing like the fine hand of so many of his peers.
        And so her only child, her "Boykins," her "Billy Lengthwise," her "Buster," had been sometimes a hero even by default.
        "Don't call him those names," Emma pleaded. He still offered his mother the childish endearments, while Emma made do with "William" at the end of a letter. He was forty-four years old and a major, commissioned at Allentown, where his unit from Roosevelt Hospital had been trained in June of that year, 1917, before shipping off to his "somewhere in France."
        It was a somewhere with a Roman triple-arched stone bridge and a fifteenth-century church with magnificent glass, and wonderful walks, "if there were only time," beside fields worked by shaggy-footed draft horses. "Even here in the zone of advance, you'd hardly know there was a war on."
        It was selfish of her to suspect that he took a secret pleasure in the heroic mystery of his "somewhere," and the mother-in-law, Helen, dismissed Emma's quibble. It was the censors they should blame. Her Billyboy, now Major Lloyd, had told them how silly the rules were. How matters of far greater moment were published daily in the papers, how the French sent letters to his unit giving name, rank, organization, place, on the outside of their envelopes.
        In Helen's and Emma's mail from France, there was sometimes a blot of ink where a proper name should have been, a person or a place. And some of their letters had the text washed completely black where Dr. Lloyd must have attacked the week's news with a cavalier indifference to regulation. Emma would be furious with him, but the mother, Helen, again blamed the ignorant sentries. She turned their insult into public shame, as if new insights from the family hero had been denied to the world. Information such as this, already received:
        The Poilu is a marvelous, filthy, courageous, ignorant fighting man. . . . I pass my life among men who have looked death in the face and been unafraid. . . . The French officers of the rear are delightfully reassuring and totally ineffective. . . . The health of the French people is remarkably good.
        Thanks to you, Emma, I have the Emerson at my bedside. I hope you've bought another copy so that you and the children will not be without his advice; two copies, in fact, one for the city and one for Moriches. The boys especially should have another go at these essays. I believe they went right over Willie's head on his first try. And Louis may have been too cocky to listen to anyone's counsel. Keep reminding them that Nature manifests the rules for their conduct. That's the key to it all. They've just got to open their eyes to Nature, God's first Bible.
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