There’s arguably no time and place more ripe for dramatic tension, tragedy and triumph, than World War II Europe, which helps explain readers’ enormous appetite for novels set in that time and place. The good news for those readers: There are plenty of writers and publishers ready to feed it. The appeal of these stories is evergreen, says Amanda Bergeron, executive editor at Berkley, publisher of quite a few of the books described below (Bergeron edited The Women of Chateau Lafayette and The Invisible Woman). While it remains one of the darkest periods in modern history, she notes, people take comfort in reading about it “with the reassuring knowledge that the conflict ended and the good guys won.”
Below are 18 new or upcoming works of historical fiction set during the era, many featuring unlikely spies, family secrets unearthed, brave members of the Resistance and their treacherous enemies, and, yes, lots of heartache and romance.
Lana’s War by Anita Abriel
Lana Antanova, brought up in Paris by a White Russian mother, is pregnant when she witnesses Gestapo officers execute her music-teacher husband for hiding a Jewish girl in a piano. Later joining the Resistance — channeling her energy into avenging his death — she pretends to live as the party-loving mistress of a wealthy Swiss businessman, also in the Resistance, named Guy Pascal on the French Riviera. Her aristocratic background helps them make connections with the area’s Russian émigré community as danger from the enemy mounts. Meanwhile Lana falls hard for Guy and becomes deeply attached to a young orphaned Jewish girl named Odette. It’s a romantic story with a gorgeous setting.
Our Darkest Night by Jennifer Robson
This novel from the best selling Robson focuses on the Italian front, offering an unusual setting and premise that’s based on a real-life story. Antonina “Nina” Mazin lives in Venice, the daughter of the Jewish ghetto’s last remaining doctor, who was training her for admission to medical school. But when their lives are threatened in the autumn of 1943, Dr. Mazin asks a close friend, a Catholic priest, to help convey his daughter to safety. The catch: She will have to pose as the wife of a farmer named Nico Gerardi, a man who until recently had been studying for the priesthood himself. Although Nina and Nico slowly fall in love, his continued efforts to resist the Nazis make them vulnerable. Robson, well known for her wartime romance novels, continues to spin romance here, but with a humbler atmosphere and characters with real grit and determination.
The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck
Robuck, whose historical novels are often centered on actual literary figures (Hemingway’s Girl, Call Me Zelda), fictionalizes the wartime feats of a real-life Baltimore debutante-turned-spy named Virginia Hall. Recruited in 1941 by the British Special Operations Executive, Hall was the first woman settled in France for the purpose of espionage until she was forced to leave in late 1942 to avoid capture. The Gestapo considered her “the most dangerous of all allied spies,” this despite her artificial leg that she nicknamed “Cuthbert,” and the story details her bold escapades undermining the Nazi effort. The novel has received a lot of positive attention and it should, for its strong, fascinating heroine and her cinematic derring-do.
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The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan
From the author of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir comes a sprightly novel about a wartime cooking contest and its four entrants. “The Kitchen Front” BBC radio program spurs excitement when it announces a competition with the grand prize a job as the first-ever female cohost of the show. Motivations for entering vary: Young widow Audrey needs financial relief. Nell, a kitchen maid, seeks a road out of lifetime servitude, while her employer’s wife, Gwendoline, hopes for a path to divorce. Finally, Zelda, a London-trained chef, needs a new career and a new home. The contestants wrangle, then help each other, as they struggle with sourcing and presenting good food during the strictures of wartime. But although Ryan weaves in the hardships of war, she also allows them to revel in the more lighthearted cooking challenge and, finally, in becoming fast friends. It’s a delightful read. (Available Feb. 23)
Send for Me by Lauren Fox
This is a quiet, emotional story about a young woman, Annelise, who grows up working alongside her parents in their bakery, not realizing that soon their hometown in Germany will be filled with the anti-Semitic hatred sweeping their country. After she marries a shoe salesman, Walter, and gives birth to a daughter, she and Walter flee for America, sadly leaving her parents behind. The story jumps forward to modern times, when Annelise’s granddaughter discovers her great-grandmother’s letters recounting that difficult time. Fox’s novel is based on the author’s own remarkable experience when she was in her 20s and discovered letters written between 1928 and 1941 by her German great-grandmother to her grandmother in a shoebox in her parents’ basement.
Those Who Are Saved by Alexis Landau
Novelist Vera and composer Max, Russian émigrés, wait too long to leave a Paris on the brink of World War II, and thus make the difficult decision to leave their four-year-old daughter Lucie behind, believing she would not survive a nighttime trek over the Pyrenees. Once the couple has found a new home in Los Angeles, they believe Lucie has perished in the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre. Max gives up hope, but Vera continues to search for information. Joined by a screenwriter named Sasha, she returns to France and spends months hunting for her lost child. The novel is slow to gain traction, but the story demands the initial background information that makes its denouement satisfying and authentic. (Available Feb. 23)
Other recent or upcoming novels set during World War II
Eternal by Lisa Scottoline
Set in Rome during Mussolini’s reign, this latest from Scottoline (known for her best-selling thrillers) focuses on three friends, Sandro, Marco and Elisabetta, while they grow to adulthood and their way of life is threatened by war and fascism. (Available March 23)
The Rose Code by Kate Quinn
Three young female code breakers at the famed Bletchley Park, each very different, are torn apart by a treacherous secret. The story jumps forward from 1940 to 1947, when the trio rejoin to contend with the past. (Available March 9)
The Girl From the Channel Islands by Jenny Lecoat
A big fiction debut about a Jewish refugee who flees to the British Channel Islands and ends up working as a translator for the occupying Germans, inspired by Lecoat’s parents’ real-life story of living under Nazi rule on the islands.
The Last Green Valley by Mark Sullivan
Also based on a real-life story, this novel by the author of the wildly popular 2017 novel Beneath a Scarlet Sky focuses on the Martels, a Ukrainian family who fled Europe during Stalin and Hitler’s terrorizing reigns and began a long, arduous migration to freedom in Montana. (Available May 4; Read our excerpt here.)
The Venice Sketchbook by Rhys Bowen
Caroline’s great-aunt Lettie leaves her a sketchbook, three keys and a final whisper: “Venice,” requesting that her ashes be scattered in the city where she was an art teacher during the war. The story takes us back to those troubled days, by the author known for mysteries and romantic novels. (Available April 13)
The Paris Apartment by Kelly Bowen
Another story set in the present and looking back in time at an older generation’s secret wartime life. Here a young woman who inherits a Parisian apartment undisturbed since WWII discovers clues about her grandmother’s intriguing past. (Available April 20)
The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray
A history-sweeping story encompassing the French Revolution and both world wars, about Adriene Lafayette, the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette, and the lives of two women who had dramatic experiences decades later in her ancestral home in Auvergne. (Available March 30)
Courage, My Love by Kristin Beck
Two women in Nazi-occupied Rome are drawn to the Resistance, contending with heart-stopping danger and determined to protect the people they love. (Available April 13)
The Last Night in London by Karen White
A present-day freelance journalist, Maddie Harlow, looks back on the glamorous, treacherous early life of a local woman named Precious who was a fashion model during the Blitz in London. (Available April 20)
When We Were Young by Jaclyn Goldis
A debut novel about three generations of women from a Jewish family and their romances — from Sarah in Corfu during the war in 1942, to her daughter Bea in 2004 and modern-day Joey, Sarah’s granddaughter, in Florida.
The Woman With the Blue Star by Pam Jenoff
A young woman, Sadie, in the Krakow Ghetto hides from the Nazis with her parents in the sewers beneath the city. Sadie befriends a wealthy Polish girl and the two are challenged as danger grows. (Available May 4)
The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles
A woman, Odile, is a librarian at the American Library in Paris who helps smuggle books to their Jewish patrons when the Nazis occupied Paris. A young girl in Montana uncovers her story decades later and makes some surprising connections. The author worked at the library herself, and the story is based on real-life events there.