Today is the final day of Persephone Readathon, so I thought I would pick a slim book which I’ll be able to read in a day. The book I chose is Operation Heartbreak which only has 167 pages, and right off the bat before I get into the story I must urge you not to pass on this book if you ever come across it. Operation Heartbreak doesn’t look like it is one of Persephone’s popular titles – on Goodreads only 67 readers have rated it, but it is a gem of a novel which certainly deserves to be read and loved by more people!
In the Prologue of Operation Heartbreak, we have two high-ranking military officers and a chaplain on their way to a funeral. Their journey doesn’t tell us much except that the dead major had been in the military attaché’s regiment, and the military attaché doesn’t have a high opinion of him.
Then the story turns to its protagonist; Willie Maryngton. Willie is an only child born to parents who had no siblings. When his parents die – his mother after giving birth to Willie, and his father at war – he is left orphaned in this world without any relations. So he grows up in the house of one of his father’s fellow officers, alongside his three children with whom Willie shares a warm relationship.
Willie, we are told, is not a very smart lad, and despite the initial misfortunes of his life he grows up to be a decent young man with the sole ambition of becoming a soldier. But sadly for him, WWI ends before his training is completed, so he gets shipped off to India with his regiment. In India, he falls in love and gets engaged to Daisy, his Colonel’s daughter who later runs off with another married soldier. Willie being a sweet man doesn’t even blame Daisy for jilting him, and after another stint in Egypt, he returns to England.
In England, Willie reconnects with Horry and Felicity, his foster siblings. Felicity has grown into a beautiful young woman by then, and Willie instantly falls in love with her. Thereafter for the first time in his life, Willie considers leaving the army just so he can marry her. Felicity, however, turns down his proposal saying she is content with their relationship as it is. But when she says “… we’ll have great fun, and not be too serious, and who knows what may happen in the end?” Willie takes it as it’s Felicity’s way of saying he should not give up his hopes for their marriage. So after confirming that he’ll be able to return to the regiment if another war takes place, he leaves the army and starts a business.
But when WWII breaks, once again Willie finds himself in a disappointing situation. He gets absorbed back into the regiment, but not to fight the enemy soldiers. Instead, Willie and the regiment’s Colonel are given the responsibility of training new soldiers. This devastates Willie to a great extent because he had always believed war is in his blood and he is destined to fight. To learn that Horry who is older than Willie and was a pacifist till recent times had been able to enlist also adds to his misery. With Felicity working at the Auxiliary Fire Station and Garnet, his other foster brother working at the RAMC, Willie feels like his contribution is menial. This turn of events makes Willie who was once loved by everyone into a bitter person bullying junior officers. So within a year he gets let go from his job and not long after that Willie dies of pneumonia at Garnet’s flat.
Willie’s death happens 3/4ths into the story, and at this point, I started to wonder what the big “heartbreak” in this novel could be. Yes, it is sad that Willie couldn’t marry, but there was no question about Felicity’s love for him. Regarding his professional aspirations, while it is true that he didn’t get the promotion that he was after, I didn’t see it or the fact that he couldn’t be in a battlefield as good enough reasons for a “heartbreak.” So I was starting to grow somewhat dissatisfied with the novel, despite Duff’s beautiful writing.
But then the story took the most unexpected turn! The next few pages made the story behind the novel’s title clear. It was indeed heartbreaking when it all came together, and it left me with tears rolling down my cheeks!
Max Arthur’s Afterward made me realize Operation Heartbreak was inspired by a true incident that took place during WWII (highlight to see, I don’t want to give away spoilers: Operation Mincemeat), so it was an added bonus. Now having read about the real event, I must say I thought Operation Heartbreak is very well written. Cooper doesn’t leave anything to chance, and I preferred his plot to military’s! Ha! 😀 So like I said in the beginning, do read this if you get a chance especially if you like historical war fiction. 🙂