If I Could Tell You by Elizabeth Wilhide
If I Could Tell You by Elizabeth Wilhide seemed to be the perfect book: a romantic story that’s set in England during World War I, that stars a brave, young woman, and is written by a British female author. If I Could Tell You checks all my favorite boxes, because I’m a fan of similar books by authors like Kate Morton and Jacqueline Winspear. I wish I could tell you that If I Could Tell You whisked me away to another time and place. However, the truth is that it failed to enthrall me.
If I Could Tell You begins in an English coastal town in 1939. Julia Compton is leading a good life, but a boring one. She has a good marriage, a well-to-do house complete with domestic help, a darling son who attends boarding school, and a near-scandalous friend. The entire town is holding its breath, waiting for war to begin, when Julia meets Dougie, a charming documentary filmmaker who captures her heart, which forces Julia to make many difficult decisions thereafter.
If I Could Tell You is a perfectly serviceable book, and since it’s only Wilhide’s second novel, there is hope that a future novel of hers will astound, because I could see her love of words in her writing. It reminds me of comedy movies that I’ve seen, where you know the punchline, and why it should be funny, but nothing happens that deserves a real laugh. Wilhide throws all the right ingredients into her historical fiction mix, and her writing has a distinctive voice, but the characters lack depth, the plot is minimal, and the writing can be stilted. Wilhide may have done quite a bit of research into the time period, but her book reads more like someone copying historical fiction, rather than bringing the time period to life.
The characters — Julia, in particular — have very few facets to their personalities. While they remind me of star-crossed lovers I’ve read, and they are sympathetic characters who you hope will find happiness, they are more like your acquaintances than good friends. I like to feel that I really know book characters. Thoroughly good books inspire me to actually miss their characters. (I’m forever re-reading the Outlander series, because if I don’t have Claire and Jamie spinning through my mind, I feel the loss.) I’m always perplexed when female authors are able to create male characters, with relatable flaws and unique voices, who are more complete than their female characters. I’ve read more than one book by a woman who either has a better understanding of men, and therefore writes men better, or makes too many assumptions about how well the reader can fill in the blanks. Julia may be the heroine, but the surrounding events and their affect on her life are far more interesting than her or her choices. Dougie, her lover, on the other hand, at least has a dark side and is more intriguing.
The plot, which describes the demise of an average marriage, then brings in selective elements of World War I, is thin. Wilhide’s writing paints a romantic, and tragic, picture. Sometimes, her prose even borders on poetry. However, while the prose may be palatable, there is little story within the prose, and very little character revelation or examination of life. It is almost writing for writing’s sake. Some readers may enjoy that — getting lost in flowery words and time-period slang — but without much plot to entice me, I had difficulty reading If I Could Tell You. I was curious how the end would play out, which means the story had at least enough mystery to push me toward the finale.
When I say If I Could Tell You is a perfectly serviceable book, I mean it will pass the time in waiting rooms, or during lessons, or for quick reading before bedtime. If you’re looking for a page-turner that’s filled with characters who make you feel as if you know them, If I Could Tell You will leave you wishing for more.