This novel is an exploration of the meaning of character, and how upbringing, companions, and circumstance influence people’s attitudes. Historical fiction’s strength is in how the themes reflect the book’s time period. The early 1900s in England continued the shift from a separation of noble and common born based on land ownership to recognition of skills and wealth with no ties to the landholders. Those entering the military during World War I helped with this change because enemy fire doesn’t care about social standing. The suffragette movement also rose to prominence. I think this novel successfully portrayed the mix of people who were changing, learning to change, and resisting the expansion of their social ties.
Daisy, the main character, represents both those changed and resisting. She is from the wealthy financial class and grew up alongside the local lord’s son. Her support of suffragettes makes her cross class lines on the other side, befriending Ruby from the poor part of London.
Her attitudes are not as egalitarian as you might suppose, however, illustrating the complexity of early 20th Century class politics well. This is never clearer than with Bowman. Daisy dismisses him as a local handyman, and therefore incompetent, even when her noble friend sings the man’s praises. Things get more complicated when she faces her physical reaction to this man and the problems it causes.
I don’t want to give away the plot threads around each character, but I’ll provide a teaser. The book brings World War I to life from both the volunteer nurses’ and soldiers’ perspectives. It explores bravery and cowardice, moral character, and love and lust. Only kissing occurs on screen, with thought and implication revealing the rest. Still, the dangers of passion are very real while different consequences apply based on gender and position. We gain enjoyable and illuminating insights from how the characters handle various circumstances.
The book has its dark moments, and the main characters don’t always do the right thing, but I came to know them enough to understand even their bad choices. Daisy’s need to be useful puts her in the middle of first the suffragettes and then the war itself. The description of wartime makes the costs clear, and not just on the front lines, without dwelling on the gory aspects. The story explores the power of grief both for those left at home and from the aftereffects of traumatic injury (mental and/or physical). Nor is war the only suffering with consequences raised. The conditions of the lower classes, the treatment of suffragettes, and the aftermath of thievery hold a place within the many plot threads.
I know nothing of the suffragette movement in England, but the author talks about her research into this and WWI, suggesting resources to learn more. Her portrayal feels true to the early 1900s, and Daisy’s understanding of the suffragettes is compelling even if she doesn’t agree with all steps taken in the movement’s name. The portrayal of nursing and a woman’s role in wartime is my favorite part of the novel in a lot of ways. There were a few modern phrases, but not enough to throw me out of the historical period.
Daisy grows into her own person through the events in the novel, and this growth offers a main plot to tie all the others into a coherent whole. She learns the difference between infatuation and love, how emotions can mature, and how to value people for who they are rather than her expectations of them. Her journey gives us a brilliant view of the many forces pulling at the lives and fabric of society in the early 20th Century. Her search for purpose thrusts Daisy into the forefront of events that helped shape this time. She does not stand separate. These events impact Daisy and those she cares about, making them affect us, too.
The novel is an epic story about how people are their own worst impediments as well as the horrors of World War I. It’s petty at times, and selfish, then powerful and generous to an extreme. This is a people story of a complicated era where social change destabilized the existing order and war tore everything apart. Sometimes I despaired of Daisy’s choices, only to recognize the necessity of these steps in her life journey later.
The characters have many layers, not all of them good, making them complex and interesting. Not every plot thread has the strength of the nursing and war ones, but neither are they straightforward, even when they might appear simple at first. Also, the romance thread, while not the main one, has elements of a second chances story, a favorite trope of mine. There’s a lot to absorb in The Best of Daughters, and I enjoyed my time among the characters. A solid work of historical fiction focused on the role women played in society and World War I.
P.S. I received this title from the publisher through NetGalley some time ago, then lost it for a bit because of device failure. I am giving my honest opinion now because the timing is never wrong if the book is still available.