Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

I didn’t really write about it, but last year I read March by Geraldine Brooks twice: once before it won the Pulitzer and once afterwards. The first time I read it, I was trying to decide whether my book club should read it, and after it won the Pulitzer, we decided to go ahead and put it on our list (along with Little Women, which made for interesting comparison).

I liked it. I enjoy books that “fill in” another story, and Mr. March and Marmee were both characters that were well-suited to that kind of story. I am not sure I think it deserved all that acclaim, but I did like it, even if I wasn’t completely enthused about it.

After we read it in book club, one of the ladies bought a different Geraldine Brooks book: Year of Wonders. She said she thought it was better than March, and after reading it, I’m not sure whether I agree or not, but I did like it quite a lot. This book is based on actual events – during the Black Plague, the village of Eyam voluntarily quarantined themselves at the recommendation of their rector. Two-thirds of the village passed away before the Plague finally ran its course.

The novel is set from the perspective of Anna Frith, who lived in the village with her two sons and worked for the rector and his wife. Much of the book is about her friendship with the rector’s wife, which gives Anna a new confidence as she learns to read and helps tend the sick.

This book is somewhat gruesome, with the descriptions of Plague and a few other deaths . . . normally that kind of thing doesn’t bother me all that much, but this was a book that I didn’t like reading on my lunch break or while eating dinner. Other than that, I did enjoy learning about the time period and what it might have been like to live through the Black Plague. (I have read a lot of gruesome, educational books lately, it seems.)

I did feel like the treatment of religion and the rector was kind of predictable . . . it would have been more challenging and interesting to have the rector make different decisions (I think that’s all I will say without giving anything away). The rector’s wife, though, was a much more empathetic character who was fleshed out in a realistic way. As her story was revealed, I saw her as a woman who had faced difficulties and come through them as a compassionate person with a quiet faith.

This was Anna’s story, though, and watching her gain confidence in her own knowledge and skills amid such great tragedy is what I will most remember about this book. I wouldn’t say this is an essential read, but if you’re into historical fiction (which Geraldine Brooks does well, I must say), you might give it a try.

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