The Pull of the Stars, by Emma Donoghue

This is one of those novels that turns out to be far timelier than the author anticipated — Donoghue was, of course, thinking of the 100th anniversary of the “Spanish flu” epidemic when she began researching and writing this novel set in a Dublin hospital in November 1918, but the books came out in June 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with plagues and deadly viruses very much on everyone’s minds.

I recently read (listened to, actually) a non-fiction book about the 1918-19 flu pandemic, a book with a vast and broad scope that tried to touch on all aspects of the pandemic as it played out all over the planet. The Pull of the Stars is just the opposite, and not just because it’s fiction rather than non-fiction. The novel’s focus is very tight: three women (one of whom is the main point-of-view character) working in a special section of the hospital’s maternity ward for expectant mothers who are also suffering from the flu. One woman (Julia, the main character) is a nurse, the others are a hospital volunteer and a female doctor. And the whole story unfolds over three days, as the handful of women in the small ward live through (or don’t live through) both childbirth and the most deadly influenza strain the world has ever experienced.

It’s interesting, of course, to compare the similarities — the small glimpses we get of Dublin as Julia travels to and from work, the public-health warnings, the uncertainty and fear — to today’s world. But there’s not a lot of space in this tightly-focused novel for these broader glimpses of how the flu is affecting the world through which Julia moves, because the emphasis is so clearly on these specific interactions among these women.

It took me a little while to get into this novel because, although the setting was fascinating, I felt like the book was slow to bring us into the inner lives of the women, especially of Julia, and it didn’t feel at first like there was a huge emotional investment. That emotional investment crept up on me gradually, and by the time I realized how much I cared what was happening to these women, I was riding the crest of an emotional wave that would not stop till the book ended. I lost some sleep finishing those last chapters.

I have one quibble with the choices the author made in the plot, but it’s not one I can talk about without major spoilers, and it’s not something that would in anyway diminish my recommendation of this as an excellent, timely and engrossing read.


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