Feature

Novel of the week

Life Class by Pat Barker

Life Class by Pat Barker (Doubleday, $24)

It takes a special writer to build a stirring work of war fiction from a “daringly languid” plot, said Ron Charles in The Washington Post. In Pat Barker’s 11th novel, art and romance preoccupy the three main characters when we meet them in London in 1914. Paul, a frustrated working-class art student, is competing with a more successful painter for the attention of Elinor, a rising star at Paul’s school. Because Barker lets the tension among the three build slowly, it’s “a testament to her elegant style and psychological acuity” that the first half of the novel is engaging throughout. When World War I arrives, Barker nicely captures the way the violence releases something primal in British society, said Christopher Benfey in The New York Times. But where Barker’s previous war novels—the Booker Prize–winning Regeneration trilogy—achieved real weight, Life Class feels “too light, too airy,” even when Paul is tending to mangled soldiers as a frontline medical volunteer. There’s tragedy, though, in the story’s delineation of the limits of love, said Wendy Smith in the Los Angeles Times. The character’s divergent ideas about art aren’t dismissed as frippery. In the end those ideas drive two lovers apart.

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