Darla Salva Cruz unpacks the “impressive, ambitious, and wildly entertaining” Lovely War by Julie Berry.
Two love stories, five Greek deities, eight narrators, and almost thirteen hours – if you’re looking for drama and grandeur on a mind-bending scale in an audiobook, you’ve found your mark with Lovely War by Julie Berry. This is an intensely emotional and deeply satisfying listen, whether you’re seeking well-written historical fiction, passionate romance, beguiling mythological trickery or simply one of the most impressive arrays of narrators in one title as you can find.
Lovely War’s frame, narrated by Alan Corduner, begins in 1942, as femme fatale Aphrodite and handsomly uniformed Ares meet for a lovers’ tryst in a New York City hotel. Little do they know that the strange bellhop following them is in fact Hephaestus, Aphrodite’s weary husband, who has set a golden-webbed trap for them. Having revealed his wife’s unfaithfulness, Hephaestus puts her on trial right then and there. Aphrodite, for her defense, embarks upon the telling of her greatest works of romance – two love stories from the Great War that display the true depth of her passion for her work and require the summoning of more Olympian witnesses to tell their part. If you find yourself suspecting she’s a little more savvy than she should be about the whole situation, you might just be onto something!
Jayne Entwistle takes over the telling for Aphrodite’s testimony. She begins in 1917 with the story of Hazel and James, teenage Brits who meet at a parish dance and fall instantly, hopelessly in love mere days before James is to be shipped off for training and ultimately the trenches on the Western front. While heartbroken by their untimely parting, the young lovers, encouraged by the direct involvement of Aphrodite, are determined not to lose each other, exchanging bittersweet letters read by Fiona Hardingham and Steve West. As James proves his worth on the battlefield, Hazel directs her desire to aid the war effort by travelling to France to volunteer with the YMCA, offering her skills as a pianist as entertainment and emotional relief to soldiers. There she meets the stars of Aphrodite’s second romance – Belgian refugee Colete, another YMCA volunteer with a tragic past, and Aubrey, a black American soldier and talented pianist who quite justifiably styles himself King of Ragtime and Emperor of Jazz. The stories of the two couples intertwine as they fight to keep themselves and their loves alive through the horrors of the Great War. Aphrodite summons her brother Apollo, whose sections are narrated by Dion Graham, and Hades, narrated by John Lee, to help her in the telling. Even Ares, narrated by Nathaniel Parker, joins in to tell of the boys’ exploits on the battlefield.
Berry ingeniously hands off the telling of characters’ stories between the deity that most influences them at any given time. When Aubrey’s heart is full of Colete, Aphrodite tells his tale, but if music becomes his focus, Apollo takes over. And when depression following a horrifying racially-motivated crime stops him cold, Hades takes the helm. This has the additional effect of successfully recreating the drama of the page turn in audio format – there were several times when I gasped as I heard the voice of the god who would narrate the next section (especially when it was Hades).This title is just perfect for audio. Be sure to stick around at the end of the audio for a Historical Note read beautifully by Julie Berry herself, packed with fascinating information about which details were based in reality, the challenges faced by women and people of color during wartime, and much more.
While each narrator’s performances were individually stellar, I did find the production lacked cohesion between narrators. If a section was labeled as “Aphrodite,” Entwistle did all the voices therein, as was the case for each other deity. Characterization and accent use was not particularly consistent between narrators. For example, Jayne Entwistle’s James was younger, sweeter, and based on the accent from an entirely different part of England than the James of Steve West’s letters sections or Nathaniel Parker’s Ares sections. Aubrey’s voicing was particularly varied across his narrators, with none able to match Dion Graham’s compelling energy. While I can’t call this audio production perfect, I would still call it impressive, ambitious, and wildly entertaining, and would not hesitate it to recommend it to anyone looking for an enthralling and immersive audio experience.
Lovely War, by Julie Berry, narrated by Julie Berry, Alan Corduner, Jayne Entwistle, Dion Graham, Fiona Hardingham, John Lee, Nathaniel Parker, and Steve West. 12 hrs, 59 minutes. Listening Library, 2019.
Darla Salva Cruz is the Youth Services Consultant for the Suffolk Cooperative Library System in New York. She is a current member of ALSC, YALSA and REFORMA. She has served on the 2018 Odyssey Committee, is currently serving on Quicklists Consulting Committee, and reviews for School Library Journal. Darla has been a voracious audio listener since at least 8 years old, when she remembers listening to Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt on repeat all summer long. Find her on Twitter @broughtabook