Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Nightingale Girls by Donna Douglas

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Library/Netgalley
Read: May 7, 2014

Three very different girls sign up as student nurses in January 1936, while England is still mourning the death of George V. Dora is a tough East Ender, driven by ambition, but also desperate to escape her squalid, overcrowded home and her abusive stepfather. Helen is the quiet one, a mystery to her fellow nurses, avoiding fun, gossip and the limelight. In fact she is in the formidable shadow of her overbearing mother, who dominates every aspect of her life. Can a nursing career free Helen at last? The third of our heroines is naughty, rebellious Millie -- aka Lady Camilla -- an aristocrat on the run from her conventional upper class life. She is doomed to clash over and over again with terrifying Sister Hyde and to get into scrape after scrape especially where men are concerned. This utterly delightful novel brings a London pre-war hospital vividly to life.

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Donna Douglas' The Nightingale Girls took me a long time to get into, a very long time. I was actually more than halfway through the narrative before I finally began to appreciate the story and while I will be moving on with the series, I have very mixed feelings about books.

Looking at the jacket description as I compose my thoughts, I realize the word 'delightful' should have tipped me off. There is nothing delightful about working in hospital, especially if you are a student at the bottom of the hierarchical food chain. That said, the adjective is a highly accurate descriptor for the Douglas' work. 

Think historic chick lit because that's really what this is. Douglas spends more time describing Millie's wardrobe, Helen's burgeoning romance, and Dora's sexually abusive stepfather than she does the drudgery of cleaning bedpans, changing bandages or practical nursing and while I eventually accepted the direction and tone of the narrative, I can't deny I'd have liked to see more balance between context and character drama. 

Another thing that irked, the multitude of narrators. The story focuses on Helen Tremayne, Dora Doyle and Millie Benedict, but significant portions of the narrative are told by supporting cast members like Veronica Hanley, Lucy Lane, Nick Riley, and Matron Kathleen Fox. Maybe it's just me, but The Nightingale Girls has a large cast and I personally found the constant rotation between primary and secondary points of view mentally exhausting. 

There is definite potential in some of the subplots, but bottom line, I'd recommend the book as a beach read before passing it to fans of hard hitting historic fiction. 

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Why did she think she could ever be a nurse? Living on the other side of Victoria Park from the Nightingale, she had often seen the young women coming and going through the gates, dressed in their red-lined cloaks. For as long as she could remember she’d dreamed of being one of them. But dreams like that didn’t come true for the likes of Dora Doyle. Like any other East End girl, her destiny lay in the sweatshops or one of the factories that lined the overcrowded stretch of the Thames.
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