Monday, June 22, 2020

Review: The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

Title: The Splendid and the Vile
Author: Erik Larson
Published: February 2020, Crown Publishing
Format: ARC Paperback, 464 pages
Source: Publisher

On Winston Churchill's first day as prime minister, Adolf Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. Poland and Czechoslovakia had already fallen, and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away. For the next twelve months, Hitler would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons. It was up to Churchill to hold his country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally--and willing to fight to the end.

In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson shows how Churchill taught the British people "the art of being fearless." It is a story of political brinkmanship, but it's also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill's prime-ministerial country home, Chequers; his wartime retreat, Ditchley, where he and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest; and of course 10 Downing Street in London. Drawing on diaries, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports--some released only recently--Larson provides a new lens on London's darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and his family: his wife, Clementine; their youngest daughter, Mary, who chafes against her parents' wartime protectiveness; their son, Randolph, and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Pamela; Pamela's illicit lover, a dashing American emissary; and the advisers in Churchill's "Secret Circle," to whom he turns in the hardest moments.

My thoughts: This is the first book I've read by Erik Larson and it absolutely will not be the last. It's also the first time I've ever read narrative nonfiction and I really like this style - it totally reads like fiction. I don't know if all his books are like this, but I sure hope so!

This book took me a bit longer to read than I expected, but that's not to say I didn't enjoy it. And reading it during the pandemic really put things into perspective. This book is all about Churchill and what life was like in London during the Blitz during his first year as Prime Minister. Life was chaotic, you never knew when bombs would be dropped, if you would make it through the night, if your loved ones who were part of the RAF would come back to you. It really put being in lockdown for a virus in perspective.

I loved that we learn so much from Churchill's inner circle through diaries and letters, including his own daughter, Mary. Her entries not only show us what it was like to come of age during this time, but she also provides insights into her father. She was able to see just how much this war weighed on him. She really was quite a remarkable woman in her own right, just like her mother, Clementine. I had recently read a book on Clementine (Lady Clementine by Marie Benedict) and knew what a strong support she to Churchill. She was just as important to him as his trusted advisors and both books prove that. 

I haven't read a lot about Churchill and this book provided me with quite a fascinating look into his life and his role as Prime Minister. I've read many books on WWII, but this was a unique perspective I hadn't read before of the struggle Churchill faced to keep the country together, and his willingness to fight to the end even though winning really didn't seem a likely outcome. This book may look daunting because of its length, but once you start reading it, it really becomes quite compelling and you quickly find yourself engaged. 

Now that I've read my first Erik Larson book, I know I'll be reading more. I've already bought a few and just need to find the time to read them. If you've read his books, do you have a favorite?



  1. Kristin, I'm glad that you enjoyed reading this book. Excellent review! I have a copy of The Devil in the White City which I've been meaning to read for a while now.

  2. My absolutely favorite narrative nonfiction was The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. My favorite book about being a reader was also written by her, Ex Libris.


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