Darkly compelling, illuminated by the light of compassion and tenderness: Donoghue’s best novel since Room (2010).

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THE PULL OF THE STARS

A nurse in a Dublin hospital battles the ordinary hazards of childbirth and the extraordinary dangers of the 1918 flu.

Donoghue began writing this novel during the 1918 pandemic’s centennial year, before COVID-19 gave it the grim contemporary relevance echoing through her text: signs warning, “IF IN DOUBT, DONT STIR OUT,” an overwhelmed hospital bedding patients on the floor, stores running out of disinfectant. These details provide a thrumming background noise to the central drama of women’s lives brought into hard focus by pregnancy and birth. Julia Power works in Maternity/Fever, a supply room converted to handle pregnant women infected with the flu. The disease makes labor and delivery even more high risk than normal. On Oct. 31, 1918, Julia arrives to learn that one of her patients died in the night, and over the next two days we see her cope with three harrowing deliveries, only one of which ends well. Donoghue depicts these deliveries in unflinching detail, but the gruesome particulars serve to underscore Julia’s heroic commitment to saving women and their babies in a world that does little for either. Her budding friendship with able new assistant Bridie Sweeney, one of the ill-treated “boarders” at a nearby convent, gives Julia a glimpse of how unwanted and illegitimate children are abused in Catholic Ireland. As far as she’s concerned, the common saying “She doesn’t love him unless she gives him twelve,” referring to children, reveals total indifference to women’s health and their children’s prospects. Donoghue isn’t a showy writer, but her prose sings with blunt poetry, as in the exchange between Julia and Bridie that gives the novel its title. Influenza gets its name from an old Italian belief that it was the influence of the stars that made you sick, Julia explains; Bridie responds, “As if, when it’s your time, your star gives you a yank.” Their relationship forms the emotional core of a story rich in swift, assured sketches of achingly human characters coping as best they can in extreme circumstances.

Darkly compelling, illuminated by the light of compassion and tenderness: Donoghue’s best novel since Room (2010).

Pub Date: July 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-316-49901-9

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2020

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For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

THE FOUR WINDS

The miseries of the Depression and Dust Bowl years shape the destiny of a Texas family.

“Hope is a coin I carry: an American penny, given to me by a man I came to love. There were times in my journey when I felt as if that penny and the hope it represented were the only things that kept me going.” We meet Elsa Wolcott in Dalhart, Texas, in 1921, on the eve of her 25th birthday, and wind up with her in California in 1936 in a saga of almost unrelieved woe. Despised by her shallow parents and sisters for being sickly and unattractive—“too tall, too thin, too pale, too unsure of herself”—Elsa escapes their cruelty when a single night of abandon leads to pregnancy and forced marriage to the son of Italian immigrant farmers. Though she finds some joy working the land, tending the animals, and learning her way around Mama Rose's kitchen, her marriage is never happy, the pleasures of early motherhood are brief, and soon the disastrous droughts of the 1930s drive all the farmers of the area to despair and starvation. Elsa's search for a better life for her children takes them out west to California, where things turn out to be even worse. While she never overcomes her low self-esteem about her looks, Elsa displays an iron core of character and courage as she faces dust storms, floods, hunger riots, homelessness, poverty, the misery of migrant labor, bigotry, union busting, violent goons, and more. The pedantic aims of the novel are hard to ignore as Hannah embodies her history lesson in what feels like a series of sepia-toned postcards depicting melodramatic scenes and clichéd emotions.

For devoted Hannah fans in search of a good cry.

Pub Date: Feb. 9, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-2501-7860-2

Page Count: 464

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 18, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

THE MYSTERY OF MRS. CHRISTIE

In December 1926, mystery writer Agatha Christie really did disappear for 11 days. Was it a hoax? Or did her husband resort to foul play?

When Agatha meets Archie on a dance floor in 1912, the obscure yet handsome pilot quickly sweeps her off her feet with his daring. Archie seems smitten with her. Defying her family’s expectations, Agatha consents to marry Archie rather than her intended, the reliable yet boring Reggie Lucy. Although the war keeps them apart, straining their early marriage, Agatha finds meaningful work as a nurse and dispensary assistant, jobs that teach her a lot about poisons, knowledge that helps shape her early short stories and novels. While Agatha’s career flourishes after the war, Archie suffers setback after setback. Determined to keep her man happy, Agatha finds herself cooking elaborate meals, squelching her natural affections for their daughter (after all, Archie must always feel like the most important person in her life), and downplaying her own troubles, including her grief over her mother's death. Nonetheless, Archie grows increasingly morose. In fact, he is away from home the day Agatha disappears. By the time Detective Chief Constable Kenward arrives, Agatha has already been missing for a day. After discovering—and burning—a mysterious letter from Agatha, Archie is less than eager to help the police. His reluctance and arrogance work against him, and soon the police, the newspapers, the Christies’ staff, and even his daughter’s classmates suspect him of harming his wife. Benedict concocts a worthy mystery of her own, as chapters alternate between Archie’s negotiation of the investigation and Agatha’s recounting of their relationship. She keeps the reader guessing: Which narrator is reliable? Who is the real villain?

A compelling portrait of a marriage gone desperately sour.

Pub Date: Dec. 29, 2020

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2020

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