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The Pull of the Stars

Review

The Pull of the Stars

In an overcrowded, overtaxed city hospital, nurse Julia Power works tirelessly to comfort her patients, pregnant women segregated from the rest of the maternity ward due to their highly contagious flu. Outside the hospital, government posters warn people to avoid crowds and practice good hygiene. Sound familiar? Travel back to 1918 Dublin, a city already riven by political unrest and poverty, where the flu pandemic rides the coattails of World War I.

Julia is one day shy of her 30th birthday, but she hardly has time to think about that. She’s assigned to a cramped, three-bed maternity/fever ward, under the watchful eye of Sister Finnigan. The novel is divided into four parts: "Red," "Brown," "Blue" and "Black," which correspond to the colors of the victims’ faces as the disease progresses. Like “our” virus, this one does not kill all its victims. Julia herself has had it and recovered, which is handy, since she is now immune and can safely nurse her patients.

"As the novel comes to its 'feverish' end, Julia makes some bold choices that will change her life forever. With its multiple layers and fast pace, this unsparing page-turner will be a book group favorite."

Through Julia’s senses, the reader is thrust into early 20th-century nursing, complete with poultices, forceps and whiskey-as-medicine. During the next few days, which comprise the course of the novel, Julia cares for women who have only two things in common: flu and pregnancy. Enter Delia Garrett: a well-off mother of two girls, here to recover and hopefully keep her baby --- so many sick women suffer premature births. Honor White: a scared 17-year-old, scandalously unmarried and a ward of the Church, where she’ll have to work a year following her delivery to pay back the expense of keeping her, if she indeed can recover. Delirious Ita Noonan: “Haggard at thirty-three years old, pale but for those flame-red cheeks, her belly a hard hill. Eleven previous deliveries, it said on Ita Noonan’s chart, seven children still living, and this twelfth birth not expected for another two and a half months.”

Alone in the small ward, Julia is swamped. Help finally arrives in the form of Bridie Sweeney, “a youngster in civvies in the doorway, brassy hair scraped back and oiled down but a frenzy of curls at the back.” She has no experience --- Sister Luke has sent her from the convent lodgings --- but she has curiosity, intelligence and undaunted energy. Soon she is anticipating what needs to be done (often cleaning up after various bodily fluids) and doing it, without overstepping boundaries.

When Bridie shows up again the next day, Julia is grateful and happy. Aside from her brother, Tim, with whom she lives, she doesn’t have time for friends. Tim has returned from war service traumatized to the point of muteness, but he cooks and keeps house. At the hospital, a friendship develops between Julia and her very different assistant as they struggle to save and comfort patients. The hospital is so busy that they conscript a female physician to help --- a Dr. Lynn, who is coincidentally on the run from the authorities due to her support of Irish independence. Naturally, she is more competent and reasonable than any of the harried male doctors we have met thus far. It’s Dr. Lynn who explains that the word “influenza” comes from the medieval Italian belief that the influence of the stars makes people ill --- thus the “pull” of the stars.

Can a historical novel be timely? Medicine changes and politics change, but life and death do not. “The old world was changed utterly, dying on its feet, and a new one was struggling to be born.” So thinks Julia as she finally celebrates her birthday on the hospital roof at the end of a long shift. As the novel comes to its “feverish” end, Julia makes some bold choices that will change her life forever. With its multiple layers and fast pace, this unsparing page-turner will be a book group favorite.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on August 7, 2020

The Pull of the Stars
by Emma Donoghue

  • Publication Date: July 21, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316499013
  • ISBN-13: 9780316499019