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Lizzie's War: A Novel
Lizzie's War: A Novel
Tim Farrington
HarperOne, 2005
384 pp., 24.95

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The Missing Person
The Missing Person
Alix Ohlin
Knopf, 2005
304 pp., 22.95

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Betty Smartt Carter

Only Connect

Two novels about finding—or failing to find—a structure of meaning in the mess and confusion of our lives.

I like Tim Farrington's new novel, Lizzie's War, but not because its Vietnam-era story is unique or surprising. Those were turbulent times, and turbulent times catch up writers in their wake. Many novelists have now written about the struggles of soldiers in an unpopular, possibly unjust, war. What makes Lizzie's War distinctive is the way it treats the battlefield and the homefront as parallel and equal fields of conflict. A soldier's bitter struggles are no less grueling than his wife's struggles at home. Eventually the marriage itself becomes a third battlefield, where husband and wife have to fight their way through years of distance and resentment in order to save their union.

Farrington paints an emotional picture of the O'Reillys, a Marine family so absurdly loyal that they celebrate the anniversary of the Marine Corps' founding every year with a green cake and a blaze of candles. Captain Mike O'Reilly is in Vietnam, leading his first solo company through some of the worst combat of the war so far. His son Danny knows Corps lore backward and forward and imagines battle in a glow of glory. For Danny's mother, though, war is a rival, a cruel mistress that claims her husband, body and soul. What Liz O'Reilly fears most in life is a knock on the door, Marines in dress greens on the front step, waiting to tell her that Mike is dead or wounded. She's always listening, always clinging to the edge of the normal and familiar.

On the other side of the world, Mike sees all the war's absurdities: men dying because of bad decisions, hard-won victories negated by politics. Yet he knows that it's his calling to lead men into battle, and he knows he's good at it. How can he put his true thoughts into words in a letter home? How can he sum up the horror of war and his own mixed feelings without distressing his wife? He chooses to shield her from the truth, writing breezy letters that downplay the danger he's in. To Liz, Mike's letters become tokens of his infidelity.

The tables ...

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