Losing Julia

by Jonathan Hull

Published by Delacorte

358 pages, 2000

Buy it online




Trench Dreams

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


Author Jonathan Hull was at Time magazine for 10 years, variously as Jerusalem bureau chief and as a national correspondent. A veteran journalist who has seen a thing or two, Hull has said that during his stay with Time he was increasingly struck by the constraints of non-fiction. "Fiction seems far better equipped to get at the deeper and more compelling truths of life: our unspoken fears and hopes, our secret desires, how we make sense of our lives."

That quote in some ways synopsizes Hull's stunning debut novel, Losing Julia. Almost as though, with a career's worth of self-denial, Hull cut himself loose to cover all of that ground: fear, hope, secret desire and making sense of life, all wrapped into a story that engages and compels. It would have been easy, with this particular mix, to bog down in oversentimentality or the bathos that can follow an overdose of pathos. Hull does none of this. Instead he cuts a swath through this season's fiction offerings with a wonderfully executed, finely detailed story that I predict will leave a mark.

Losing Julia opens in eastern France in 1928 at the site of a small monument that is being dedicated to the 152 soldiers that died there on that day 10 years previous. And there, in the shadow of the small monument, Patrick Delaney meets her. Julia. The woman that his fallen trenchmate Daniel had spoken of incessantly and with longing throughout the ordeal of their war. Descriptions that had fueled both men in the time they fought together in the war-torn French countryside during the closing months of World War I. Daniel had never shown Patrick a picture, but he recognized her instantly.

She wasn't glamorous. There was ever a certain plainness to her appearance -- no fashionable bob or plucked eyebrows -- but that's what made her so appealing. Her warm, soft features were strikingly natural,as though they'd look the same whether just getting out of bed or going to dinner. Meanwhile, her shy smile and flashing eyes -- what life they held! -- suggested an interesting combination of strength and vulnerability. When I caught myself staring, I forced my gaze away.

From the meeting at the base of the monument, we move to a nursing home in California, circa 1980, where Patrick is living out his days as painlessly as possible because, "everything hurts, sometimes all at once. Feet, knees, hips, lower back, stomach, head. One false step and smash, old man Delaney will splinter into a thousand pieces of brittle bone on the cold cement."

The story is told from Patrick's perspective. Sometimes from within the frustrating confines of his nursing home, sometimes in 1928 with Julia and sometimes in the trenches of World War I, an experience that marked him absolutely, in the way that war has marked its veterans for time out of mind.

The bravest and the meekest were the first to die. The rest of us tried our best not to look like cowards but sometimes, when asked to charge a German Maxim nestled in a concrete bunker surrounded by three belts of wire, a man would shit in his pants and there was no stopping it. The body goes berserk like an animal being dragged kicking and whining to the slaughterhouse.

In some respects, Losing Julia is a love story, and it's a moving one at that. In other regards it's the ultimate coming-of-age story, as Patrick struggles valiantly and admirably with the inevitable humiliations of advancing age and -- previously -- with understanding the changes that the war, and later love, are bringing to him.

Some of the book's most charming scenes involve the ancient Patrick struggling to come to terms with the inevitable.

I'd love to get laid one more time before I die. Seriously. And truth be told, I get a lot less picky as I get older. (Some nights I am kept awake by the faces of women I once turned away during my brief and misguided heyday.) I am, essentially, a horny eighteen-year-old trapped in the carcass of an Egyptian mummy. If youth is wasted on the young, and it is, recklessly so, then old age is wasted on the infirm: all that wisdom crammed into a dog that no longer hunts. And still I fantasize like a freshman.

Most of all Patrick is struggling with his final balance sheet. Did the losses he experienced in his lifetime outweigh the things he achieved? Was the love he experienced enough to sustain him? Should he have clung more tightly in some cases? Let go more quickly in others? And, of course, there are no answers. There can't be, can there? But Hull brings us the questions so eloquently we hardly notice they're missing.

Losing Julia is a triumph. A wonderful novel. Beautifully paced and perfectly crafted. I wouldn't want to see a semicolon changed. | March 2000


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.