When the Germans begin bombing London in World War II, Betty is determined to do her part. Instead of running air raid drills like most girls her age, she lies about her age and trains to become a spy. Now known by her secret agent persona, Adele Blanchard, she finds herself parachuting over German-occupied France under the cover of darkness to join the secret Resistance movement. Prepared to die for her cause, Adele wasn’t expecting to make a new best friend in her fellow agent or fall for a handsome American pilot. With the brutality of war ever present, can Adele dare to dream of a future where the world is at peace and she is free to live and love of her own accord?
I discovered Violins of Autumn in the library one day while I browsed through the YA section. The WWII-ish font on the spine caught my interest, along with the title itself, which I half-recognized from my recent viewing of The Longest Day (‘…the long sobs of the violins of autumn…’). The synopsis on the inside flap sounded intriguing enough and I took the book home with me, though without many expectations, since it is YA fiction and most of that tends to be pretty awful (quality or content issues or both). But. I was completely blown away. Violins of Autumn is an amazing book, one of my new favorites, and I ended up purchasing it (which only happens very rarely, since money doesn’t tend to come my way, so buying books is always an event to remember) and reading it about four times (so far).
A lot of reviews I’ve read for VoA compare it (usually in an unfavorable way) to Code Name Verity. I disagree. Yes, both stories are about two female SOE agents who are best friends (and lots of other things too, but that’s the main point of each book), but the similarities pretty much stop there. Unlike Verity/Julie, Adele isn’t captured right away. And everything else about the stories and the characters is different too. (Personally, I prefer the characters in VoA to those in CNV – I felt much more connected to them). The writing style in VoA is much more straightforward and less literary than that in CNV, but the writing is still beautiful and there were several places were I had to re-read a snatch of description or some dialogue just to soak up the perfectness. Still, it’s not quite on the same level as CNV. The stories are widely dissimilar, but also just enough alike to make comparisons inevitable…like The Hunger Games and Divergent.
The characters: Adele is the heroine – and what a great heroine! I know that words like ‘resourceful’, ‘brave’, and ‘strong’ are used wayyyy too often in reference to fictional characters, but all those words really do apply to Adele. She’s not perfect, of course, because perfect heroines are boring, but she is one of the better female characters in modern YA fiction. At least in the books I’ve read. There was one poignant little scene near the middle of the book where, after a couple near mistakes, she makes it through a German checkpoint (they take her bicycle, though), walks a short distance away to a tree, and breaks down in tears because the whole experience was so nerve-wracking. But she only cries for a minute or so, and then it’s back to work, which really impressed me. The only thing I have to say against Adele is her indecision when it comes to romantic interests (something I’ll discuss more a little later).
(As a side note, I want to say that I loved how Adele’s backstory was revealed – in bits and pieces here and there. There wasn’t a huge info dump, which I really appreciated. The way the author handled the whole thing made it more interesting.)
Denise, Pierre, and Robbie are the other three main characters (well, main-ish). Denise is The Best Friend – she drops into occupied France right along with Adele, and although they’re pretty much strangers at that point, they quickly warm up to each other until they’re inseparable. Pierre is the leader of a Maquis cell. And that would’ve been all fine and good IF he hadn’t also been one-third of one of the most stupid love triangles I’ve ever known. In my opinion, he could’ve been taken out of the book and the plot would’ve been exactly the same. His character confuses me, doesn’t seem very consistent, and just…ugh. However, Robbie, the downed pilot that Adele and Denise rescued, is an entirely different story. He lied about his age, just like Adele did, so there’s that connection. But he’s a ‘bright and sweet’ (Adele’s words) character all by himself; he’s not defined by being part of The Love Triangle, unlike Pierre. It’s been so long since I’ve fallen as hard for a fictional character as I did for Robbie, and it felt amazing, because he’s amazing and has a lovely family and plays the piano smashingly and he’s brave and just-oh, he’s adorable (and I imagine him looking quite a bit like William Christopher). I’d re-read the book just for him.
Since this review is becoming quite long, I’ll just quickly touch on all the minor characters that stood out to me: Bishop – he dropped in with Adele and Denise, he’s quite a bit older than them, and he’s calm and mature and I really liked him. Marie and Estelle – Two French women (well, Marie is fifteen) who take Adele into their home while she carries out her SOE duties in Paris. Marie is loads of fun, and Estelle’s so sweet. And then there’s a French doctor whose name I can’t spell (or pronounce) – he helps Adele quite a bit through the course of the book, has a witch of a wife, and is a kind of pillar for Adele to lean on at times.
There were a couple of 40’s pop culture references that I caught in Violins of Autumn which made me quite happy (I always like it when I recognize a name or a title or something like that in books and movies). There were mentions of Clark Gable, Nancy Drew, King Kong, etc., etc., but there were two things that really captured my interest: 1) When Adele’s waiting for someone at a sidewalk cafe, she finds an abandoned copy of The Grapes of Wrath and begins to read it. As I recently watched – and really enjoyed – the film, that gave me a nice little thrill. 2) At one point in the story, Adele mentions Roddy McDowall in passing. I wouldn’t say he’s one of my very favorite actors, but I do like watching him in things, even if he does seem a little…weird at times. (And my sister and I laugh over the fact that we don’t know what his real accent is like, because everything we’ve seen him in has him putting on some wretched American one.)
I only had three problems with Violins of Autum:
- The prologue was unnecessary. It’s a scene taken from near the end of the book when Adele has been captured by the Gestapo, and I didn’t really see any point to including it, since, like I said, it comes from near the end. Why not leave it out and have readers wondering whether or not Adele will make it through the war safely? Just a small thing, but it kind of bugged me.
- The Love Triangle. *beats head against wall* VoA convinced of just how much I hate, loathe, and abhor love triangles. Robbie and Adele are perfect for each other, but then he leaves for England, and she’s suddenly kissing Pierre??? How does that work? Uggggggh. It made me so angry.
- The last one is just personal preference: not enough Robbie. He appears for about a chapter, disappears for five, appears for five, and then disappears for pretty much the rest of the book. *sigh*
Other than those three things, I have no issues with Violins of Autumn. It’s a wonderful read, especially for history buffs and fans of good YA fiction, and, I have to say, much cleaner than Code Name Verity (there’s just a bit of language sprinkled throughout). Ashley, you really do have to read this one ASAP.