The Walnut Tree
Charles Todd
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Buy *The Walnut Tree: A Holiday Tale* by Charles Toddonline

The Walnut Tree: A Holiday Tale
Charles Todd
William Morrow
Paperback
272 pages
October 2013
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Jettisoning his mystery formula while cleverly tying his story to the Bess Crawford series, Todd has privileged Lady Elspeth Douglas stuck in Paris on the eve of the outbreak of World War One. Forced to endure the worst, Elspeth brings the reader along for a clear view, helping to establish the effect that warfare will have on her friends and her family well into their lives.

A member of Englandís aristocracy, Elspeth has had several fine offers for her hand, but the terms of her fatherís will dictate that she must remain the ward of her Cousin Kenneth until she is at least thirty, a situation made all the more difficult as Elspeth discovers the bittersweet moments of love found and love lost. As her feelings reverberate through time, Elspeth finds herself in Paris visiting her friend Madeleine Villard, who is heavily pregnant with her first child. Preoccupied with the attentions of Madeleineís brother, handsome Alaine Montigny, Elspeth refuses to look war in the eye as the Germans march through the tiny new country of Belgium.

Paris is so different from just a few days ago, a city once full of gaiety and laughter and untouched by fear. As Alaine offers Elspeth his hand, Madeleineís husband, Henri, enlists to fight, and Elspeth finally recognizes how rare marrying for love actually is. Alaine gifts her his motherís dark red ruby ring, which only serves to remind Elspeth that he may be killed in action or come home lame or blind or without a limb. Chiefly a women of time and circumstance, Elspeth is frustrated that the world around her considers that "a husband" is her future.

When Britain enters the fight, Elspeth panics, acknowledging that she must go home on the first available ship. Leaving on the train for Calais, Elspeth is unexpectedly thrust into warís preparations as the trains thunder south to the hastily erected military hospitals, laden with the wounded. Elspeth travels through shattered landscapes of broken buildings and pitted roads and finds herself helping out at the temporary aid stations. Explosion after explosion rocks Elspeth's world, and it sickens her to look at the wounds, "so terrible and destructive to bone flesh and spirit.Ē She has never seen so much blood.

Elspeth's journey is to discover the unreliability of love in the horror of war. She could easily have shut herself behind the walls of her stone house in Cornwall and put this "wretched war" out of her mind, but once back in London, she places her self-doubt behind her and signs up for Queen Alexandraís Imperial Military Nursing Service, imagining Cousin Kenneth not speaking to her if he finds out. Elspeth doesn't hesitate to take on the challenge despite being considered to be too fragile and innocent for a job that will probably reflect poorly on her social standing, perhaps even spoil her chances of a good marriage.

Elspeth's vivid descent into war rips at the very fabric of her life. Todd uses her as a cipher to portray the friendships among the men, the shared commonality of their situation, and the painful reality of their deaths. He also shows us how equally powerful love can be, and that it, too, can rip through our existence and mark us forever. When Elspeth connects with handsome Peter Gilchrist, at first she denies any commitment and tries to ascribe her feelings to the unsettling experience of being in the company of men without the presence of a chaperone or a male member of her family. Clearly a man of deep and turbulent emotions, Peterís terrible injuries shock Elspeth into learning more about what she really wants in life. Their snatched moments at Walnut Tree Cottage in Sussex will determine both Peter and Elspeth's true intentions.

Todd conveys the emotional entanglements of a privileged woman's plight amid the twist of her heart that is equal parts love and guilt. He highlights Elspeth's headstrong nature while also endowing her with a temperament as fiery as her heart. As Elspeth becomes hostage to warís fortune, one still feels that love will prevail in a world where so many lives have been miserably wasted and lost.



Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2012

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