• The Bossy Bookworm

Review of The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Donoghue immersed me so fully in this world that everything else fell away for me.

Set in Ireland in 1918, The Pull of the Stars follows a nurse, Julia; a doctor, Kathleen; and a young volunteer, Bridie, over the course of three tumultuous days as the fiery, complex, capable women work desperately to help the patients at their understaffed hospital who are about to give birth while suffering from the devastating new influenza.


The country is reeling at the end of World War I. Permanent holes have been created in families, and the loss of men has left medical and other support systems overloaded. Our heroines are sometimes trapped by the chauvinistic framework they're working within, and we see them try to create their own solutions to crises, follow tradition or improve upon it, and fly under the radar to instinctively and knowledgeably help their patients rather than rely on, for example, young, untested, book-smart male doctors. And then there's the no-nonsense, scandalous Sinn Fein activist and doctor Kathleen Lynn, who bursts onto the scene to Handle It left and right. She is unusual in that she trusts and delegates power to her nurses, who have long been hamstrung by rules and limitations (so that in many cases all they may offer a birthing or dying woman is diluted whiskey as they wait for the few doctors to come by the ward).


Donoghue weaves a good amount of fact into this story. She offers sometimes horrifying particulars of early twentieth century medical care and exquisitely detailed glimpses into daily life and the workings of society at the time. And Doctor Kathleen Lynn was a real, formidable figure.


I wasn't sure how wise it was to read about a pandemic during a pandemic. Donoghue doesn't pull any punches with the sometimes horrific details of the flu's devastation (or the varied life-threatening dangers of childbirth). There's a constant push and pull of life and death--a microcosm of what is occurring on the battlefields and in the world. Yet for the book's characters, the life-and-death wartime and influenza crises bring laser focus to the most essential everyday matters: living life as truthfully and joyfully as possible, fighting against unjust systems, and offering grace to others. The author allows her practical characters to imagine glorious possibilities beyond the scope of what is known to them, and this added immense heart to the story.


Donoghue immersed me so fully in the moment-by-moment health and emotional crises; the women's determined, sometimes desperately creative attempts to preserve lives; and the occasional triumphs that the rest of the world fell away for me as I was reading. I couldn't wait to get back to this book when I was away from it.

What did you think?

I was engrossed. The author of the disturbing, fascinating book Room knows how to craft a story of survival and of finding hope in the most dire situations.


I recently mentioned this book in the Greedy Reading List Three Books I'm Reading Now, 9/16/20 Edition.