The Last Year of the War: A Novel
Berkley/Penguin Random House
Hardcover, 978-0451492159, (also available as an e-book and an audio book), 400 pgs., $26.00
March 19, 2019
The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner is a passionate study on humankind’s ability to endure and hope and dream during times of uncertainty, loss, and deprivation. The entire story is told through the adolescent Elise Sontag, predominantly at the end of WWII and just beyond; however, each of the four parts of the book begin with the older and ailing Elise on a final quest to reawaken a dormant friendship formed over her eighteen months in the internment camp during the last year of the war.
Both Elise and Mariko were born in the United States to parents from Germany and Japan, respectively. The friendship is instant for these two young girls, but their synced moments are fleeting because in the grotesque reality of internment camps and the aftermath, families were often forced to repatriate to their countries of origin. Nothing is fair, and the only beauty in such an unfair place and time is honest and unconditional friendship.
Susan Meissner’s writing is musical in its composition of heartache, hardship, and harrowing experiences throughout the story, especially when Elise is separated from Mariko and sent to war-torn Germany with her family. But these girls naively plan to reunite after the war and live their dreams together in Manhattan. Unfortunately, sometimes choices are made for us, and sometimes we choose to shatter the dream.
The Last Year of the War is about identity, family, loyalty, friendship, hopes and dreams, guilt and shame, freedom, and home. All of these merge together to form a story that will break your heart but also cause you to reevaluate your own friendships and family dynamics as well as your paths taken and not taken. There is never enough time in our brief lives, but The Last Year of the War reminds us that the time is now to embrace family, find lost friends, and live our best life, despite cruel wars and regretful choices.
An added gem in The Last Year of the War is the story Mariko is writing when she meets Elise at the internment camp. After they are separated, Mariko entrusts Elise to finish the story, but Elise is not the writer of the duo, so she keeps the notebook safe for when they meet again. The fictional Calista is stuck in a tower, and the two girls contemplate the many ways to set her free. This unfinished fable embodies the entire ambience of Susan Meissner’s touching story. Elise and Mariko’s friendship is stuck in time, waiting for the chance to be set free on the wings of love and understanding, waiting for that moment when the two friends can finish their story together.
The tears will flow as you read this lovely story, but those tears are not always sad ones. While war kills, wreaks havoc, and separates, it is the everlasting promise that hope will shine again amidst the despair and destruction that will move you to tears and push you to embrace your own life, family, and friends.
Susan Meissner is a former managing editor of a weekly newspaper and an award-winning columnist. She is the award-winning author of A Bridge Across the Ocean, Secrets of a Charmed Life, A Fall of Marigolds, Stars Over Sunset Boulevard, and As Bright as Heaven, among other novels.