Finally, an Erik Larson book I can recommend! They say third times a charm, and for me, that’s how many Erik Larson books I had to read to find one I liked. And the winner is….The Splendid and the Vile! To be very honest, I was NOT looking forward to this book when I saw it on my 2021 book club list. First, it’s an Erik Larson book, and second, it’s 998 pages long. 998 PAGES! But I thought I’d give it a try because I’ve had two people recommend it to me, and because I’m a good little book-club-doobie.
Right from the beginning, this book grabbed me (and trust me, no one was more surprised about this than I was). The Splendid and the Vile tells the story of Winston Churchill’s life from when he was first elected British Prime Minister in 1940 until the U.S. entered WWII after Pearl Harbor in 1942. Of course, I knew what happened during WWII after the U.S. joined (and I want to add a sidenote here: I broke my “no more reading WWII books” resolution and yet still enjoyed this book, so if you’re like me and tired of the WWII fad, it’s a nice change of perspective.) What was interesting to me is how little I knew about what was happening in England before we joined the war. I never fully understood how London could withstand night after night of German bombing during the Blitz, and this book explained it: it was largely because of the leadership of Churchill and his inner circle. The amazing strength of this man; his excellent speeches, his unflappable resolve, and more, his understanding of who needed to be put in places of power and how to encourage those people and the British public to keep going was inspiring!
Also, Larson did a great job of not just telling Winston Churchill’s story, but also the story of his wife Clementine, his youngest daughter Mary, his friends Beaverbrook and The Prof, and even his German counterparts, Hess and Goebbels. Larson weaves the story together so the reader can see how unbelievable Churchill was but also how that his successes (and therefore, England’s as well) wouldn’t have been possible without this support system.
Larson did become very detailed at times, but with this book, I gave myself permission to skim over the details I wasn’t interested in (a lot of the wartime strategy), and instead focus on the more “fun” parts. For example, one of my favorite stories was when FDR came to Churchill’s room in the White House late one night to discuss strategy, only to find that Churchill had just finished his bath and answered the door stark naked! Instead of either being embarrassed, both of these great men just continued the meeting like nothing out of the ordinary was happening. It made me smile to think of the things they discussed and the impact it had for generations to come, all while Churchill was naked, drying himself off from the bath.
So I heartily give this book 5 stars. If you want to read a Larson book and aren’t intimidated by very large books, give this one a try. It gave me new admiration for the people in the U.K. and their resolve to fight the Nazis before the U.S. even considered joining the war.