Book Review: Violins of Autumn

Book: Violins of Autumn by Amy McAuley

Series: (standalone)

Genre: YA WWII Historical Fiction (emphasis on women in the French Resistance)

Content for the Sensitive Reader: Three violent but not particularly graphic on-page deaths, amount of violence otherwise typical in WWII stories, some PG-13 and mild language scattered throughout, mild romantic themes, underage smoking and drinking.

BookmarkedOne Rating: 4/10

WARNING: Review does contain spoilers!

I picked up my copy of Violins of Autumn at the last Epic Library Book Sale (which has now been cancelled for the spring…*cries*). It had a really nice cover design and promised the exciting story of a young woman spy in WWII France.

What more did I need to know? Especially when violins were in the title?

A word of warning for oft-disappointed musicians like myself: Violins of Autumn refers to the D-Day code phrase. There is not a single violin in the book.

Which is fine. Mostly fine.

What I expected was a light and cheerful middle-grade novel about a teenage girl out to save the world from doom, darkness and your typical stereotypical Nazis. Something maybe a little unrealistic and too fluffy for the reality, but good-hearted enough to make me feel better about the world.

That is not what I got. The book is firmly YA. I was startled into the realization the first time we came across language completely inappropriate for a MG novel. In retrospect, I wasn’t the only one fooled by the book jacket design. It was smeshed in with the mostly middle-grade books at the sale.

So what was I in for? A gritty YA novel holding little back about the horrors of the war? One that gave you pulse-pounding excitement in a deeply-researched setting of what it meant to be alone in occupied France as a female spy? One that challenges the distinctions of who’s on the “right side” as the definition of who you can trust is blurred and undermines some of the “Nazi-monster” propaganda of the war by making them deeply erring humans rather than slaughtering German sausages?

Unfortunately not.

Violins of Autumn somehow walks the fine line between the two. And while I gladly would have read either, this middle ground just strikes me as lukewarm, poorly written, and not thoroughly researched.

Ouch.

I really do feel guilty saying that. The woman researched her book for seven years. I have no desire to mock someone’s tremendous effort. But frankly, there were little historical and plotting things that didn’t line up. Too much that felt like she was doing what everyone before her had done rather than creating something new.

A few examples?

Adele becomes a spy because a couple of soldiers in a London bar gave her the address. Sorry, but I’ve read too many unfortunate stories of people being jerks in bars to feel comfortable with this situation. It also feels way too easy to go wrong for the Resistance in general if all you have to do is have a funny accent in the local pub to find out where they are.

Adele is totally boy-crazy. Yeah, it’s fine. She’s an American girl who wants to have adventure and fall in love. Except she describes literally every male character she comes in contact with for longer than two minutes as if she’s ranking his value according to his appearance. Before the first chapter is over, she has three potential love interests, one of which is at least twice her age. Uncomfortable yet? As if the objectifying isn’t bad enough, she eventually emerges with two main love interests. When love interest 1 leaves, she’s passionately kissing love interest 2 in a ditch and having a conversation alone in a car that made me concerned this was going to be a very different type of YA book than I’d been prepared for. But oh, what shall we do about her apparent lovestruck situation with two boys?

Kill one of them off!

BookmarkedOne: *screams*

Okay, but seriously now. I have seen this plot device so many times. It drives me nuts. Let’s not have the girl make a mature, character-defining decision, let’s maker her totally subject to fate and make the choice for her!

Great! So now she’s probably going to marry love interest 2 with or without ever telling him about the passionate feelings for and behavior toward love interest 1.

BookmarkedOne: …

BookmarkedOne: why you two-timing little…

BookmarkedOne: And now I hate you.

Okay, so maybe I didn’t hate her as much as Sinbad of the Sea in the original Arabian Nights where I was practically stuffing junk food down my gullet while he suffered shouting “Just die already!” as I read. I still wanted Adele to make it out of the war alive and have a happy life. But I wasn’t really sympathizing as she went through the trauma of war. Or anything she had difficulty with. In my mind, she was now immature and a total jerk.

You can’t build a married life with somebody who forgets your existence the first moment you’re out of the room. So, yeah. I “ship” nobody in this book. Literally nobody.

(This is exactly why I hate love triangles, writing buddy!)

Moving on…

The writing style isn’t particularly wonderful. The author wanders off to talk about the trees or landscape or clouds in a way that makes me glaze over every time. Everything we know about the characters could be written on a 3″ by 5″ card each. Everybody has a tragic backstory and it’s told to you in dialogue rather than shown to you in characterization. And the characters are static for the most part. Very static.

And however much the author researched the book, the things she drops in feel more like tropes than anything else. Of course Adele is in solitary confinement when she gets captured. Of course she taps the Morse code against the walls. Of course she carries a cyanide pill in her pocket. Of course they pull out her fingernails. Of course.

Yes, all these things are at least marginally accurate. But by the end of the war, Nazi prisons were packed out. You’d probably have six people to a cell and rarely be in solitary unless you were a very, very important prisoner.

Which frankly, I’m not certain Adele is. Especially if they apparently “already know” everything she has to tell.

And pulling out her fingernails? Nazis were desperate for a labor force to keep the war going at this point. It’s far more likely they’d put her to work like Corrie Ten Boom building radios in a factory or Diet Eman doing laundry for the soldiers within the prison itself. Again, this is unless Adele was an incredibly important prisoner. Is she? Does she really deserve all this attention? She calls herself a liar, and probably could have worked her way out of it if she tried. Say she was out for a hike late at night with (one of) her boyfriend(s). Then her only crime is being out after curfew. If they already know everything about Resistance operations, why bother with her? If someone hiding Jews isn’t tortured at all, why take so much care with Adele?

Gut instinct tells me for plot. It’s an incredibly dissatisfying answer.

But the thing that irritated me the most about this inaccuracy?

Adele’s charm bracelet.

Early on, we’re introduced to the fact that Adele has one prized possession, a silver bracelet from her aunt. She’s clever enough not to wear something that valuable in public. Carries it in her pocket.

Including when she gets captured.

Clever girl, right? Hides it in the seam of her wool trousers. And escapes prison with it when her faithful friends raid a highly-guarded prison just to rescue her.

Okay, enough! This is ridiculous! Are we serious right now???

  • Problem 1: McAuley honestly describes the full-body search done at all prisons. What she tries to do is tame the situation somewhat by making the search overseen by other women. Afraid that’s not the case in reality. Men oversaw the search, and it wasn’t just once, it was often. Another form of psychological torture. There’s very little opportunity for smuggling, although, admittedly, it can be done.
  • Problem 2: Adele keeps her own clothes–not a prison uniform! And with them, the charm bracelet. She should have been given a uniform instantly after the search, wool trousers and charm bracelet gone forever.
  • Problem 3: It’s a charm bracelet! Why does nobody hear it jingling?
  • Problem 4: Adele happens to get the one “nice matron” in the entire prison. Apparently continuing her streak of ridiculous luck. None of the female guards in the story are nearly as scary as actual prisoners described them.
  • Problem 5: Adele’s buddies break her out of prison in broad daylight and get away with just her. That’s just not logical. The entire prison is full of people probably going to die after a little more torture, and they only care about her. Who in the Resistance is not only that selfish, but that wasteful? You broke in already, make use of your opening! Take everybody with you!
  • Problem 6: She’s still wearing the wool pants with the bracelet! Despite describing the temperature of the prison and apparently exchanging them for lighter attire!
  • Problem 7: They go back to Adele’s safe house in the middle of Paris as if everyone suddenly isn’t looking for her.
  • Problem 8: (my personal favorite) Denise buys her new charms for the bracelet at the end of the story. Her silver bracelet. As France is still trying to get rid of all the occupying soldiers. Black market or not, let’s be serious. Where are you getting custom silver charms, Denise? Where?

It’s as if at the end of the story, McAuley just threw her research aside for the sake of this bracelet illustration.

I don’t really find fault with the author for this. Historical fiction is super hard to write. They’re just little slip-ups, like asking for black coffee in occupied France, to borrow her own illustration. Things that make the careful reader realize this isn’t all it seems to be. If she’d had winning characters, a dazzling plot, and high-stakes adventure (or even one of the three), it could probably be overlooked.

As it is, the book drags. It feels as if the author herself couldn’t decide what sort of story she wanted to write and it just winds up being full of clichés. Another case, perhaps, of the lie of “write what you know.” She knows her material so well, none of it seems exciting or important enough to draw attention to. It’s just a passing thing.

Sorry. It’s true.

Yeah. Violins of Autumn. It’s fine. Nothing particularly objectionable. Just not for me.

So next week I’m probably going to be writing a blog post about all the WWII books I’ve come across and could actually enthusiastically recommend.

‘Till then.


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