Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Year of Wonders

Author: Geraldine Brooks
Rating: ***

Our Reel Women movie group decided to take a foray into books and perhaps even alternate between book and movie club each month. Judy's daughter-in-law even thought of a great new name for us: Reel Women with Spine!

So to kick off the book club, March's selection was Year of Wonders, Since I'm writing this review, the rating is solely mine, and would have been higher except for a flaw I'll mention later.

The book is set in a real English town in 1666. According to the book notes, some of the characters in the book are based on real people and others are fictional. The story centers around the main character, Anna Frith, who loses so much and in the end proves to be a strong resilient woman in the face of the tragedies she witnesses.

The town is beset by Bubonic Plague, introduced most likely by fleas carried on fabrics. The town in real life and in fiction, under the leadership of its minister, decides to isolate itself from the world - no-one will leave, no-one will enter - until the plague has passed. They rely on supplies from a nearby wealthy landowner. They leave requests by a boundary rock and stand back while previous requests are delivered.

The illness is terrible, the toll is terrible, and the story intersperses some interesting human interactions that might be imagined living under those circumstances. Our group agreed it was particularly of interest how the two main women took over the herbal medicine practice of the town "witch" and through their study provided much-needed medical care.

It was an interesting book and occasionally challenging to read. The author's liberal use of early English vocabulary, many words I'd never heard of before, gave it a ring of authenticity. The subject matter seemed to be well-researched, making the story believable. Some in the group felt that some of the characters failed to show sufficient emotion at their loss, but Judy, our reviewer, suggested it might be more true of that time than we realize, that life expectancy was much shorter and infant mortality much greater, and, in context, it made sense that those people were more accustomed to such losses.

I won't reveal the ending of the book, although we know historically how this devastating illness ran its course. But to mention the one flaw I found in the book, our heroine made some dubious choices at the story's end that I thought were totally out of character. I would have liked the story to have ended differently for our fictional character. I will say that some in our group agreed with me and some did not.

The author is a Pulitzer Prize winner for her book March.

Our group enjoyed a lovely evening hosted by Judy and her husband Sydney, with appetizers provided by each member, and joined by Judy's son and daughter-in-law, Michael and Sara. We agreed that perhaps we should stick to movies with our group and not pursue the book club route. I'm relieved as May is my month to choose and the next book club would have fallen on May.

But since that was probably our first and last book club for the group, I'm posting this review here instead of on the Reel Women page.

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