Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Fiction Review: The Women

My first audio book for this year's Big Book Summer Challenge was The Women by Kristin Hannah. I always enjoy her novels and had heard good things about this one, but this book astounded me. It was an absolutely stunning novel that will stick with me for a long time.

Frances "Frankie"  McGrath is just twenty years old in 1965 when she graduates from nursing school and decides to follow in her brother's footsteps. He's in the Air Force and has been sent to Vietnam, so Frankie signs up for the Army Nurse Corps. Her father is always talking about their family's proud history of service to the country (he even has a family "hero wall" in their house), but when Frankie announces her decision, he's not proud of her; he's angry. Both of her parents feel that Frankie should stay home, get married, and have children like a respectable woman, but Frankie heads to boot camp. A year later, she is shipped out to Vietnam. Frankie has almost no nursing experience, and in boot camp, the nurses were mostly taught how to roll bandages and change bed pans. But this is real life and real war. Frankie meets her new roommates, Barb and Ethel, and that very first day, she's thrown into the deep end when helicopters with wounded soldiers begin to arrive. She's immediately surrounded by blood, missing limbs, and dying boys. Though ill-equipped at first, Frankie soon becomes a surgical nurse and is eventually one of the most skilled nurses there. 

The three women finally return home, with their minds filled with the horrors of war, and try to go back to their lives. They return to a changed America, where veterans are no longer revered but reviled, and war protestors scream terrible things at them. Frankie's father will barely speak to her, and her mother expects her to settle down and get married. But Frankie suffers from horrible nightmares and crippling flashbacks (what would later be known as PTSD). Worst of all, when she says she was in Vietnam--even at the VA--people tell her over and over that there were no women in Vietnam. Her life is a mess, and she doesn't know where to turn,. She, Barb, and Ethel have become lifelong friends, and they're the only ones who truly understand. Frankie's path to normalcy and health is a long, slow, twisting one, but by the time the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial is dedicated in 1982, both she and the nation have begun to heal.

Where to start? Everything about this novel is completely engrossing and powerful. It's clear the author did a lot of research for this novel, including first-person accounts by women nurses who went to Vietnam and returned home, as well as details about the time periods. In an author's note, she explains that she's wanted to write this novel for a long time but felt she wasn't a good enough writer to do the story justice until now. It was worth the wait. The details--both during the war and of Frankie's experiences afterward--are vivid, horrifying, and realistic. I was very young during the war, but I remember my cousin and uncle being drafted and going to Vietnam, an experience that changed their lives forever. In fact, my uncle died from cancer (and suffered lots of other health problems) caused by Agent Orange. 

But this novel isn't just about the horrors of war. The reader experiences everything along with Frankie: the comradery among the troops, the need to let go and have fun once in a while even in the midst of war, the fierce friendships formed, and even the passion and love that develop between people put in such pressure-cooker situations. The audio was very well done, narrated by the talented Julia Whelan, and completely immersive; I couldn't bring myself to start another audio for a week after finishing it because it was still living in my head. This was an amazing, epic novel I won't forget that brings to light the contributions (and heavy price paid) of these brave women whose role and impact was mostly overlooked. It's a stunning, powerful story and so important to tell.

480 pages, St. Martin's Press

Macmillan Audio

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher in return for an honest review. My review is my own opinion and is not influenced by my relationship with the publisher or author.

 

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

This book fits in the following 2024 Reading Challenges:

Diversity Challenge

Travel the World in Books - Vietnam

Literary Escapes Challenge - California

Big Book Summer Challenge


Visit my YouTube Channel for more bookish fun!

 

Listen to a sample of the audiobook here and/or download it from Audible. The sample is from an early chapter, at Frankie's brother's going-away party.

 

Or get this audiobook from Libro.fm and support local bookstores (audio sample here, too).

 

Print and e-book from Amazon.

 

You can buy the book through Bookshop.org, where your purchase will support the indie bookstore of your choice (or all indie bookstores)--the convenience of shopping online while still buying local!

     
  

2 comments:

  1. I am so glad you enjoyed this one; I did too. I was completely caught up in Frankie's life, the romance, the history, what it was like in Vietnam for women, etc.

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    1. Yes! Such a full, in-depth character.

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