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When It’s Over by Barbara Ridley: Book Review

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A review of Barbara Ridley’s debute novel When It’s Over, a work of historical fiction based on the true story of her parents’ experiences during the Second World War.

Lena Kulkova stood at her tiny fifth-floor window, surveying the rooftops of the foreign city she had come to love but was being urged to leave…

From these very first lines of When It’s Over, I was struck by Barbara Ridley’s use of language. It fills her book with all the atmospheric detail you’d expect from a WWII-era novel, without getting bogged down. It’s descriptive, but not overly so; I wouldn’t call it flowery. It’s “literary,” but extremely readable. It’s precise. And I like books that use precise language. 

I also like historical fiction, and I like my romantic subplots (unless I’m reading romance, in which case I expect the romance to be front and center). Given that When It’s Over features, as I already mentioned, precise language, a historical narrative grounded in reality, and a romantic subplot (or two), I enjoyed it greatly. 

It’s one of those historical fiction books that doesn’t whack you in the face with its historical-ness. Barbara Ridley has built a setting, a certain atmosphere, and uses a set of characters, all of which evoke WWII-era Europe, but she doesn’t remind us with every sentence or every detail that we’re in, say, WWII-era Paris. In the first chapter, via discussion of gas masks, we already know we’re in the war. We feel ourselves there. We feel grounded there. And we begin to sympathize with the novel’s main character, Lena Kulkova, a Jewish Czech. I’ve wondered for a long time how one might go about writing a likable character who engages in an affair. And, well, if I didn’t already know, here’s the answer. 

No, I haven’t really spoiled anything, because the whole affair thing is pretty much revealed on the back cover blurb. But from here on out, the review will contain spoilers. So if you’re looking to read When It’s Over unspoiled, you shall not pass this point! (Or should not pass this point, unless you’re searching for inevitable disappointment.)

You can use the link below to pick up a copy if I have you hooked. It’s an affiliate link, so I make a small commission if you decide to purchase through it. At no extra cost to you, of course!

When It’s Over, for me, has a very cinematic feel.

By that I mean I imagine it could be made into a movie, and that it would make a good movie! I would say that this is probably partly due to the fact that real life events inspired this novel. Life is, strangely enough, sometimes like a movie.

The narration in this book is limited third person, past tense, split between two characters: Lena Kulkova, the protagonist, and Otto Eisenberg, who starts off the story as Lena’s anti-Nazi German acquaintance, becomes her boyfriend, and later becomes her husband. But it’s not as simple as it sounds. Lena flees Prague with Otto, leaving her family. They go to Paris. But Otto leaves Paris in 1939 for England, leaving Lena. Eventually, they find a way to reunite. At that point, the English are deporting Germans. In order to avoid deportation, Otto marries Lena, who’s Czech. But their relationship begins to erode pretty quickly after that. They have completely different outlooks on the war. He always expects the worst, while she’s fighting to keep hope that she’ll see her mother and sister Sasha again. 

And eventually, Lena commences an affair with an Englishman named Milton. By this point, I don’t blame her. Otto constantly derides her, talks down her work… Plus, he’s screwing one of her friends. Do I totally blame him, either? Not really. They were forced together, after all; they never chose each other. When It’s Over shines a light on all the people who might have been forced together by this war or others. (Or in present-day America — the complexities of immigration, anyone?) So I feel for both characters. More for Lena, since she’s the obvious protagonist, but also for Otto. And at the end of the day, I, like Lena, wish him well. 

… When It’s Over is timely, moving, and resonant.

I agree with this line on the back cover. When It’s Over is timely, moving, and resonant. I can’t even say exactly how this story resonated with me, but it did. It’s a story that’s a bit hard to pin down. But I like my stories that way, sometimes. The ending, with the hop to the present and the corollary of the author, moved me. Lena’s mother and sister died in the conflict. They had no graves. But she went on to have a family with Milton. 

People survive. That, in the end, is the message of When It’s Over. People survived the Second World War and went on to have children and families, despite the losses. The message is one of hope: Lena’s outlook wins over Otto’s. 

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, or even if you’re not, I recommend When It’s Over to you!

For me, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I will be reading it again in the future. I can tell you that! I’ll jump on the chance to revisit these characters and the sights and sounds of WWII-era Europe. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, especially WWII-era historical fiction, I highly recommend When It’s Over to you. Even if you’re not generally a fan of historical fiction, it’s like I said in the beginning — this isn’t a novel that slaps you in the face with the history. It’s much subtler than that. And the characters involved, not the historical events, are at the heart of the story. (As in most good historical fiction.)

The link below is an affiliate link, which means that I get a small commission if you choose to purchase via the link (at no extra cost to you). 

And thank you for reading this review. I hope you enjoyed hearing my thoughts on Barbara Ridley’s novel. Many thanks to Barbara herself for suggesting it to me in a #writerslift long ago! If you’re interested in what’s next up on my reading list, check out this post. Looking for another book review? Try my review of Chasing Cosby by Nicole Weisensee Egan

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As always, thank you for reading! 

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