Captain Stephen Winters, the son of a wealthy family who sent, most unwillingly, to serve in World War I, returns home suffering from shell-shock nightmares, and survivor’s guilt. The only one who understands is the mute
who served alongside him in the trenches as his batman, and now works as the family chauffeur. Coventry
When Stephen meets Lily Valance, a rising star in the music halls, he is instantly captivated. Lily is a sweet and pure blue-eyed blonde seventeen year old, who seems to have been utterly untouched by the war. She’s a modern girl, albeit an innocent one, a creature of the here and now, the Roaring Twenties, who doesn't want to even think about the past, least of all the war. Stephen believes she can heal him; with her he can forget all about the war and the terrible things he’s done and witnessed.
But the fairy tale quickly crumbles. Lily comes from the lower classes and is more open and free, while Stephen, and his mother, are from the rigidly traditional English upper class and believe in keeping a stiff upper lip, sticking to schedules, and doing everything in the properly prescribed manner. When Lily is pregnant and goes into labor her mother-in-law even chides her for coming downstairs without putting a robe on over her nightgown. She's also still in love with the musical director at the theater Charlie, who continues giving her singing and piano lessons after her marriage. Charlie suffered a wound to the groin during the war that left him impotent; he loves Lily but because of his condition refuses to be anything more than just a friend to her.
But Lily can’t save Stephen and, with the typical selfishness one might expect from a teenage girl, she doesn't have the patience to deal with his problems. For example, when he suffers nightmares, she tells him it's his own fault, he shouldn't eat cheese close to bedtime because everyone knows cheese causes nightmares. Or that he should see a doctor and get electroshock treatments.
Love—if it ever really was love—soon turns to hate, and the two people locked in this rather hopeless marriage both punish each other in different ways until the ultimately tragic end.
For those who like Philippa Gregory’s novels but would like a break from Tudor and Medieval England this is a welcome change, though the ending, which leaves the reader dangling, to make their own assumptions of what happens next, may not satisfy all.