Book Review: The Lieutenant’s Nurse by Sara Ackerman

November, 1941. She’s never even seen the ocean before, but Eva Cassidy has her reasons for making the crossing to Hawaii, and they run a lot deeper than escaping a harsh Michigan winter. Newly enlisted as an Army Corps nurse, Eva is stunned by the splendor she experiences aboard the steamship SS Lurline; even more so by Lt. Clark Spencer, a man to whom she is drawn but who clearly has secrets of his own. Eva’s past—and the future she’s trying to create—means that she’s not free to follow her heart. Clark is a navy intelligence officer, and he warns her that the United States won’t be able to hold off joining the war for long, but nothing can prepare them for the surprise attack that will change the world they know.

In the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Eva and her fellow nurses band together for the immense duty of keeping the American wounded alive. And the danger that finds her threatens everything she holds dear. Amid the chaos and heartbreak, Eva will have to decide whom to trust and how far she will go to protect those she loves.

Set in the vibrant tropical surroundings of the Pacific, The Lieutenant’s Nurse is an evocative, emotional WWII story of love, friendship and the resilient spirit of the heroic nurses of Pearl Harbor.

First, can we take a moment to appreciate the beauty of this book’s cover? Ah, the colors! I needed this book in my life even before reading the synopsis.

Fiction set in and around Pearl Harbor comes with a particular challenge. How do you create a story that can hold readers’ interest when the real-life events are more dramatic than anything made-up could be? The Lieutenant’s Nurse tries very hard to give us an epic love story that complements and is complemented by the historical events, but the love story elements just can’t really hold a candle to the the factual story of Pearl Harbor.

Not that The Lieutenant’s Nurse doesn’t have a lot going for it. Let’s start with our main character, Eva Cassidy. From the first, it’s clear that Eva has secrets. She’s traveling across the Pacific to an army nursing assignment in Hawaii, expecting gorgeous beaches, interesting medicine, and above all, an escape from a traumatic situation back home. The truth comes out in bits and pieces over the course of the novel, but we learn early on that Eva is traveling under an assumed name, that she’s fleeing a hospital scandal that gained her notoriety, and that her long-distance boyfriend has arranged to get her stationed in Honolulu, where’s he’s also stationed with the army.

On the ocean voyage, Eva is immediately drawn to the gorgeous naval officer Clark Spencer, and he seems drawn to her as well. As an intelligence officer, there’s a lot he can’t share, but he does warn her that war may be imminent, and that the Hawaiian islands may not be the peaceful haven she expects.

When the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor takes place, Eva has only just arrived, but rushes to the hospital alongside the other devoted nurses to tend to the horribly wounded men. Meanwhile, she keeps an eye out for Clark, who’s brought in with injuries as well, and has to deal with the boyfriend, Billy, once she realizes that he’s not the man she truly loves.

On top of the love triangle drama, there’s intrigue as we learn that Clark became of aware of the impending attack days ahead of time, but that the report he submitted was blocked and discarded, eliminating the possibility of striking first against the approaching Japanese fleet or at least giving the fleet at Pearl Harbor a chance to prepare. When Clark tries to follow up, both he and Eva receive warnings from a pair of thugs who threaten their lives and also threaten to reveal Eva’s secrets.

While the descriptions of the sea voyage and the Hawaiian islands are lovely, the characters themselves rarely feel like more than cookie cutter figures. Eva is sympathetic, Clark is handsome and mysterious, and the resolution of the love triangle is predictable. Honestly, I’d say the plot didn’t need the extra complication of the spy games and the thugs (who were not all that effective — why didn’t they just shoot Clark when they had the chance rather than letting him off with a warning? As international conspiracies go, it was a little hard to take seriously.)

Still, I found the depictions of the nurses and their dedication to their patients quite moving and inspiring, and the author does a lovely job of giving personalities and individuality to the soldiers and sailors who come to the hospital in the aftermath of the attack. Because we see the events of Pearl Harbor through Eva’s eyes, we don’t move much beyond the hospital confines, so the destruction of the fleet seems to happen at a bit of a remove.

The story of Pearl Harbor is so tragic and dramatic that it’s hard to care about anything else happening at the same time — so yes ,the love story and Eva’s personal background might be engaging, but they seem kind of small in comparison to the historical events unfolding here. The Lieutenant’s Nurse is a quick read with some touching moment, but ultimately the plot — especially the love triangle and the spy business — doesn’t really stand out as truly special.

I’d say this is a solid 3-star read for me.

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The details:

Title: The Lieutenant’s Nurse
Author: Sara Ackerman
Publisher: MIRA
Publication date: March 5, 2019
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: The Wartime Sisters by Lynda Cohen Loigman

 

Two estranged sisters, raised in Brooklyn and each burdened with her own shocking secret, are reunited at the Springfield Armory in the early days of WWII. While one sister lives in relative ease on the bucolic Armory campus as an officer’s wife, the other arrives as a war widow and takes a position in the Armory factories as a “soldier of production.” Resentment festers between the two, and secrets are shattered when a mysterious figure from the past reemerges in their lives.

The Wartime Sisters is the second novel by Lynda Cohen Loigman, whose debut novel The Two-Family House came out in 2016 (reviewed here). Both books focus on women’s lives during the 20th century, and both examine the intricate relationships between sisters, friends, and the people who come into their lives.

In The Wartime Sisters, Millie and Ruth couldn’t be more different. Ruth is three years older than Millie, and spends her entire childhood and adolescence hearing about her sister’s beauty and charm. Millie is the one their mother pins her hopes on, fantasizing about how the endless crowd of suitors will yield the perfect man to propose to Millie and make all her dreams come true. Meanwhile, Ruth grows up realizing that she’ll never be the pretty one, and resents Millie for always being the center of attention… never stopping to ask herself if Millie actually wants or enjoys the attention that comes her way.

The story flashes back and forth between the late 1930s, as the girls approach womanhood, and 1942/1943, as they settle into life at an army base in Massachusetts. We learn over time how they came to be there, and how they became so estranged from one another following their parents’ death.

Interwoven throughout their chapters on their earlier years is a nice evocation of Jewish life in Brooklyn at that time, showing the ways in which the family’s religion and culture define their world, their friends, and their approaches to life. Meanwhile, in Springfield, both Millie and Ruth form new bonds among the military wives and base workers, who represent a different but no less vibrant sort of community.

The Wartime Sisters shows the damage done to women’s souls through neglect and abuse, and also by the small and large cruelties carried out through resentment and gossip. In Springfield, we meet two additional women who fill large roles in the sisters’ new lives: Lillian, the base commander’s wife, with her own troubled childhood, is a pillar of strength and goodness amidst the turmoil; and Arietta, a motherly woman with a talent for both singing and cooking, takes Millie under her wing.

It’s sad to see the conflict between Ruth and Millie. As Ruth’s husband is sent overseas as a wartime scientist and Millie arrives, husband-less, impoverished, and burdened by secrets, it would seem that the two women finally have an opportunity to reclaim their relationship and establish a new closeness. Sadly, although Ruth offers a home to Millie, the warmth and ease that should come with it is missing. While the author lets us see why Ruth feels as she does and how her resentments built over time, it’s still hard to empathize. As far as we can see, Millie has never done anything wrong, has never set out to hurt Ruth or to undermine her. Ruth blames Millie for the incessant comparisons unkind neighbors have made all their lives, but it’s clearly just so unfair. Because of Ruth’s animosity, Millie is left to deal with their parents’ death on her own, and makes some calamitous decisions that bring about hardship and suffering. It’s hard to forgive Ruth for what she put Millie through.

In terms of the historical settings, I enjoyed learning about the Springfield Armory and the role women played in wartime readiness and production. The characters are colorful and memorable, and Arietta in particular is a delight to meet.

Overall, I found The Wartime Sisters to be moving and engaging. The story is crisp and nicely constructed, and the length means that it never feel draggy. I enjoyed the exploration of Ruth and Millie’s relationship, and despite being super annoyed with Ruth for much of the story, I thought the build-up of their history together and the explanation of all the baggage they carry with them was really effective and realistic.

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The details:

Title: The Wartime Sisters
Author: Lynda Cohen Loigman
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: January 22, 2019
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley