A short but powerful tale weaving together moral complexity and romantic intrigue, Frederick Busch’s War Babies is the story of an American lawyer in his mid-thirties (Peter Santore) who travels to England in an attempt to tie up the loose ends of his own dark past. Peter’s father, a prisoner who turned traitor in a Korean War POW camp, might have had something to do with a fellow captive’s death, the father of one Hilary Pennels — now a woman Peter’s age who lives in Salisbury. When Peter and Hilary meet, they both want information from the other, and more, and find themselves engaged in a wary dance of attraction laced with mistrust. But it may be a third person, the sole remaining survivor of the camp — a Mr. Fox — who holds the key to the mystery of betrayal that haunts Peter and Hilary alike. (publisher’s summary)
Because the novel is so short, we’re only hosting 2 discussions for it.
For this week’s discussion, we’ve read pages 1-50, ending with “mine and squeezed.”
Please be aware that there could be spoilers.
Anna: What are your first impressions?
I’m finding it hard to get into the story, mainly because the dialogue seems awkward to me, the characters are odd and unlikeable, and mainly because Pete and Hilary’s meeting seems contrived. Does this author seriously want me to believe that Pete travels from the U.S. to England in search of answers from Hilary and he just happens to have an encounter with this woman at the hotel and later in the market and it just happens to be the one woman he’s looking for? And then Pete expects Hilary to believe that he didn’t know it was her?
Serena: I’m having similar issues the the dialogue, which seems disjointed and choppy at times. And the meeting between Hilary and Peter is contrived and their “relationship” is contrived. I’m having issues with this whole thing.
I do think that if this has preoccupied Peter for as long as it seems to that maybe through research he’s found that Hilary could have some answers for him. And crazier things have happened where people have sought complete strangers out for information. That is believable to me, but the way that it comes about here, is so unbelievable.
What do you make of Fox?
I find him to be a traumatized soldier, but I also think that he embellishes. At least that’s what it seems like to me that he embellishes the goodness of his soldiers and those that died. He’s at least believable to me, though his relationship with Hilary is strange.
Anna: I just can’t get past the improbability of their meeting, and then immediately having sex. I just don’t “get” their relationship; it’s like a lot of what would have made it believable was left out. The author seems to give so little details about everything at this point. What was the extent of Pete’s research? What prompted him to seek out Hilary? Maybe Busch wants to reveals these details over the course of the book, but he’s not giving me much to keep me interested in the story.
The whole thing with Fox is just odd. Hilary can’t seem to decide if he’s an overprotective father figure or a pervert, and her change in behavior around him seems without reason and just weird. Again, I think it’s the lack of details.
Fox does seem to go on and on with his war stories, even though he seems to understand that Hilary doesn’t want to hear them. His stories are given all the details, down to the exposed muscle on the Lieutenant’s injury. He seems all over the place, from saying that he doesn’t hold what Pete’s father did against him, then getting very hostile toward Pete at the end of his tirade, but that could be the booze talking.
It’s just a very odd narrative, and I have no idea where it’s going. The weirdness of the characters and the contrived meeting/relationship seems to detract from what should be the focus of the novel: the war and why it compelled Peter to go to England for answers. He seems to believe his father had something to do with her father’s death, and I hope they can stop having sex long enough for the real story to start.
Serena: I found Fox to be the most interesting character, seems like a war vet with the drinking problem, the constant story telling, the overwhelming emotions and roller coaster of them. But he’s there and gone so quickly and then the relationship with him and Hilary is so ill-explained.
I do like that Fox provides the details about the camps and the life there, but it seems like there’s no explanation about the war and what started it or who was involved except the “Chinks,” “Yanks,” and the English.
I really am at a loss in this one. At least it’s short. Maybe this author assumes the reader knows a lot about the war?
Anna: Maybe, because I’m finding it hard to follow all that, and the disjointedness of the narrative doesn’t help when there are few details about the war. I especially am confused about the different camps they mention; if Pete’s father was at a different camp than Hilary’s father and Fox, I’m wondering how the three men are connected. But the way this story is told, being all over the place and not very coherent, It makes me wonder whether the characters and their odd connections will overshadow the war story.
I agree that Fox is the most interesting character, and I think my judgment of him may be clouded by the fact that Hilary talks about him before readers meet him, so I was expecting this odd, perverted man with a weird obsession with Hilary. I’m also glad that it’s short because I am slightly curious about where the story is heading but don’t want to have wasted too much of my time on it.
Serena: I hear you on that. I guess we’ll have to wait to see what comes next. Right now, all I want to know is what happened to the fathers, not Hilary and Peter. That’s an awful thing to say since they are the main characters.
And yes, Hilary’s comments about Fox have clouded my impression of him. But I’m waiting for the second half.
Anna: Of course, the most interesting things to us are the things not being discussed! I guess we’ll have to wait and see and hope it gets better!
What do you think? Feel free to respond to our discussion and/or post any questions you might have in the comments.
**Please join us for the final discussion of War Babies by Frederick Busch on Friday, June 27: Pgs. 51-the end (begins with “We didn’t speak again”)