The search for a soulful and completing love is a theme as old as stories, and recent bestsellers have struggled to convey that theme in all its universal, weighty and romantic glory. Jonathan Hull, in a gorgeous debut novel, achieves that feat gracefully and simply, with a spare structure full of compassionate ideas and astounding metaphors.

Losing Julia is narrated by Patrick Delaney, an 81-year-old World War I veteran dying in the Great Oaks assisted living community. The story begins with his recollection of his first trip back to France 10 years after the war. Delaney brings his wife and son overseas for the unveiling of a memorial etched with names of friends His killed in a horrific battle, but his wife can't bear the idea, and he attends the service alone. The moment the cloth is pulled down, he looks across the crowd and recognizes the beautiful Julia, a painter and the intended fiancée of his mentor Daniel, who was killed on the battlefield. Delaney had only heard Julia described by Daniel, but he knows her at once. Shyly introducing themselves, they realize that they have a few days to visit with each other before Delaney must return to his wife and young son waiting in Paris, and Julia to her daughter in America. She is desperate to know about Daniel's last days, and Delaney yearns to reveal everything in his soul about war and loss and how life will never be the same for him.

Julia's intelligence and warmth remind Delaney of Daniel, and he falls deeply in love for the first time in his life—the one thing that his best friend said could change his world forever. As Delaney the elder looks back on a love rooted in tragedy and a friend's aborted life, the time frame shifts subtly between a young man's innocence and disillusionment, a married man's desire for consuming passion, and an old man's wisdom about their connection.

Delaney's memories return him again and again to the memorial, to France, and to both the horrors and transformational love he experienced there. Delaney comes full circle at the end of his life, realizing that even unrequited love can be a positive life force, as long as it's a true melding of souls and the most intimate self. Hull's confidence and mastery turn an economy of words and emotions into art. Scenes of war and making love are described with an equal and stunning starkness, leaving space for infinite longing and meaning.

Deanna Larson is a reviewer in Nashville.

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