Review: 'When I Was Young' by Mary Fitzgerald (2014)
'When I was young the war started. When I was young my father was a soldier. When I was young I moved to the country. When I was young I went to France and fell in love'
Eleanor is sixteen when she goes to the Loire Valley on a French Exchange. But the beauty of her surroundings are at odds with the family who live there. It is a family torn apart by the memories of the German occupation, and buckling under the burden of the dark secrets they keep.
Etienne, the dark and brooding owner is friendly, but his wife Mathilde's malicious behaviour overshadows Eleanor's days.
As the secrets reveal themselves one by one, Eleanor begins to understand the terrible legacy of war, and when death comes to the vineyard, she learns the redemptive power of love.
In October 2013 I reviewed Mary Fitzgerald’s novel ‘The Love of a Lifetime.’ Mary Fitzgerald was a new author to me and I’m really glad I gave her book a chance because I ended up enjoying it much more than I had originally expected. Thanks to the lovely people at Cornerstone I received a review copy of another Mary Fitzgerald book a few weeks ago, named ‘When I Was Young.’ I immediately really liked the cover and was intrigued by the blurb, so I looked forward to sitting down with this new Mary Fitzgerald story, hoping I’d enjoy it as much as the first one!
In the 1950’s, sixteen-year-old school girl Eleanor lives together with her parents on a farm in the Pennines in England. Her mother doesn’t pay her much attention and her father has never been quite the same since the war. When Eleanor is given the chance to go on an exchange programme to France for several weeks, she can’t say ‘yes’ quickly enough. She ends up with a family living on a farm in the Loire Valley, and France is everything Eleanor had hoped it would be. However, Jean Paul, the French exchange student Eleanor is staying with, doesn’t want anything to do with her. Luckily, his family members are different and it doesn’t take long before Eleanor becomes close to them. Yet, the closer she gets, more parts of the darker side of the family come to the surface, and instead of staying out of things, Eleanor only seems to become a more integral part of it all...
When I started reading this book I hoped I’d enjoy it as much as ‘The Love of a Lifetime’ (the first Mary Fitzgerald novel I read), but it definitely managed to exceed my expectations. I was straight away taken in by Eleanor who leaves her dull and sober life in England behind to go to France. As the story continues, the reader discovers that this exchange trip is much more to Eleanor; it’s the chance to get away from it all, but also a period in her life in which she is forced to grow up, to no longer be a teenage girl but a young woman. I loved experiencing this development in Eleanor as a character, and really enjoyed reading her story, told completely from her perspective as if she is looking back at the events in her life at an older age.
The story is set in the 1950’s and this becomes clear in how fresh the memories of the war are to some of the characters. I loved Mary Fitzgerald’s descriptions, such as the difference in setting between Eleanor’s cold and bleak life at the farm in England and all the bright colours and sounds of the French countryside, and her character descriptions (I specifically grew very fond of Lisette, Jean Paul’s little sister who Eleanor becomes quite close with). ‘When I Was Young’ is a wonderful well-written, gentle-paced ‘coming of age’ story which I couldn’t put down and a novel I recommend to anyone looking for a nice piece of women’s fiction!