The Toll of Folly is a gripping historical novel, the second in a series that follows the lives of four Parisians during WWI’s first few months.
No knowledge of the previous book is needed. Author J. William Whitaker smoothly orients readers as he introduces and follows his characters and their situations:
Activist Sara Morozovski becomes stranded in Germany at the declaration of war, her French nationality, Jewish background, and political activities—all of which make the Germans more suspicious of her—forcing her into hiding while she searches for a way to return to Paris.
Music student Marie Bonneau is drawn to assisting wounded soldiers, finding new meaning in her life as she takes on riskier assignments closer to the front lines.
After narrowly surviving a battle, engineer Robert D’Avillard joins a team preparing Paris’s defense against German attack.
Robert’s brother Thomas, a priest in Strasbourg, near the German border, returns to Paris disillusioned, trying to reconcile reason and religion with war’s insanity.
Whitaker expertly captures the sense of the war’s devastating violence, describing the shrieking of incoming artillery shells and German machine guns brutally slicing through French soldiers. In the battle where Robert is injured, Robert throws himself on the ground upon hearing an incoming shell, “sensing “only a huge hollow sound, like some gigantic bass instrument.”
The author’s well-drawn protagonists’ lives are rich with drama, and they intersect in unusual ways. For example, although Marie has feelings for Robert, who she nurses during his convalescence, she feels more drawn to Thomas. Novel’s end reveals a surprising connection between Sara and another main character, adding further layers of intrigue.
The story sometimes get bogged down in excessive detail about troop movements and military tactics, which, while providing useful information, occasionally makes the narrative read like a history book. Additionally, the dialogue can be stilted.
This aside, the novel offers compelling characters, a dramatic backdrop, and easy-flowing chapters, which historical fiction fans may appreciate.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.