Breaking Point: A Novel of the Battle of Britain by John Rhodes

Reviewed by Jim Eaton

I had a feeling I might enjoy this book. It was published on my birthday. Which is, I admit, entirely beside the point but one looks for, or is looked at by, signs, nicht wahr?

I finished reading Breaking Point last night at about 1 a.m. I wasn’t planning to finish it; for the last two weeks, I’ve been enjoying it in snippets. Vignettes, if you prefer. And often it was a lot to take in, mentally and emotionally, if you became invested in the characters, the situations, and the stakes, which I did.

The story is essentially told through the perspectives of an RAF pilot and a girl he once knew in college who early on in the book becomes a key player in Britain’s development of strategic defense. They are both quite young—in their twenties, if I read right—and both under a tremendous amount of strain, albeit of different varieties. Eleanor has been tasked, due to her extraordinary brain and capacity for applied mathematics and logic, with assisting the powers that be in their analysis of the Luftwaffe’s attack on southern England. John Shaux is tasked with flying his Spitfire, killing as many of the Luftwaffe as he can, eventually leading his squadron (of which most perish with alarming regularity), and staying alive.

Only the first of these comes easily to him; the man does love to fly.

I read a review of this book on Amazon that poo-poo’ed it because it contained too much romance, too much love. This from a reviewer who admitted plainly he had not read the book (!). And there was romance, I agree. But not of the sort one would expect. Sure, Eleanor and John end up together in some fashion. I ruin nothing for the reader by including that spoiler, however, because their romance is incidental. Instead, the central romance in this book occurs between the author and Great Britain. This story could not have been told without a deep, passionate love of country, not to mention history, and an unwavering admiration for the few humans who defended, against insane odds, the most heinous military power this world has, to date, ever seen.

And that love is evident in Rhodes’ mastery of detail, his painstaking efforts to demonstrate the frailty, courage, hopelessness and efforts of his cast. I have no idea if what he illustrated was true; I read up a bit and it seems the bombing of London went on quite a bit longer than Eleanor predicted it would, and yet, the premise seems plausible.

What I did not expect, and what might turn off some readers (but not this one) was the intense mathematical journey that is without doubt the linchpin of the tale. Britain doesn’t triumph because of dumb luck or bravado or piloting skill. Wildly outnumbered, it is the application of cutting edge probability math that informs their path to victory. Or so Rhodes claims. I cannot and would dispute it; in fact, I hope that it was true. The Nazis were outsmarted. There’s a fact that could never get old.

I would add that Rhodes’ action scenes are hair-raising if one submits to the power of their execution and allows imagination to take the stick. I myself hate heights, so I found each chapter involving a patrol difficult and visceral. There was plenty of pain and heartbreak and I felt those keenly. It was difficult not to feel pride, too, in what these men and women were able to do. Rhodes clearly did and does.

My one criticism: the character Rawley. Oy vey with that guy. I sometimes wondered if Eleanor was in some kind of trance when dealing with him. A grade A, over-the-top asshat. Perhaps a little too much, in my opinion. Who behaves like that? I’ve read plenty of Victorian novels and of course watched all of Downton Abbey, and yes, many men are just plain terrible, but this guy…ugh. How could such a person gain or maintain any status in a sane, just society? Debenham was a clown but I bought him. Rawley? No.

If Rhodes is indeed writing a sequel to Breaking Point, I would very much like to read it. And I will take a look at his two mystery books as well. He’s a keeper.