Books Read in 2016: ‘My Name is Mary Sutter’ by Robin Oliveira (2 stars)
Fans of Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, and Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini will love this New York Times bestselling tale of the Civil War. Mary Sutter is a brilliant young midwife who dreams of becoming a surgeon. Eager to run away from recent heartbreak, Mary travels to Washington, D.C., to help tend the legions of Civil War wounded. Under the guidance of two surgeons, who both fall unwittingly in love with her, and resisting her mother’s pleas to return home to help with the difficult birth of her twin sister’s baby, Mary pursues her medical career against all odds. Rich with historical detail—including cameo appearances by Abraham Lincoln and Dorothea Dix, among others—My Name Is Mary Sutter is certain to be recognized as one of the great novels about the Civil War.
My GR Status Update(s):
07/13 . . .marked as: currently-reading
07/17 . . .21.0% While the characters have caught my interest, the writing style of this book (headhopping, flashbacks/major backstory dumps for several characters, and I just finished Ch. 4) is taking a little getting used to. So for right now, progress is slow going.
07/20 . . .35.0%
07/20 . . .marked as: read
After having thoroughly enjoyed the PBS/Ridley Scott miniseries Mercy Street earlier this spring, I was excited about My Name is Mary Sutter after reading the book summary and a few of the more positive reviews of this book. I was hoping for something very similar in tone to Mercy Street, delving deeper into a character like that story’s Nurse Mary, while also not telling the exact same story.
In fact, the story has a similar set up for what I thought would be the romantic through-line of the story in that Mary Sutter meets a somewhat gruff young(ish) doctor in the first chapter (the rule of thumb for any romance plot to get that part of the plot rolling, even if it’s not technically a romance novel, which this one is not) who seems to be the perfect foil for her—there’s an obvious, growing attraction for her when we’re in his viewpoint, even though he’s married. (It’s quickly revealed that the marriage was a mistake and they’ve been separated almost from the wedding day.)
Mary, a trained midwife, wants to become a doctor. So she takes it upon herself to visit Dr. James Blevens to ask him to take her on as an apprentice, since the medical school in her hometown of in Albany, NY, won’t admit her. She’s read as many books as she can get her hands on, so her knowledge is extensive; but she lacks practical experience, which is what she wants from Dr. Blevens. This seems like the perfect setup for the story to come—he says no, the war starts, and he goes off for his “three-month” stint as an army surgeon (remember, no one expected the war to last long, so Lincoln put a call out for volunteers for three months at first). The war, of course, becomes Mary’s opportunity to learn what she needs in order to become a doctor.
We see “Mary Sutter” and “James Blevens” working side-by-side during a difficult delivery (a little more detailed than I was personally comfortable with, as were most of the medical scenes, but seemed very realistic, so kudos to Oliveira for doing her research) and then later, when Dr. Blevens helps transport this woman and her baby to Mary’s house to convalesce. Naturally, he’s invited to dinner by Mary’s mother, Amelia; and they’re joined at dinner by Mary’s twin sister, Jenny, and Jenny’s beau, “Thomas Fall.”
Let me stop here and address a few issues that came up early on and then continued throughout this novel for me:
1. Lack of Structure. As mentioned in my blog post on Chapter 1 of Scene and Structure, “The problem I’m having with Oliveira’s book is another one of mixed POV and seeming lack of structure. . . . And her narrative jumps around in time, dropping flashbacks into the middle of a scene of dialogue, or jumping back in time to tell someone’s entire backstory after leaving the previous chapter hanging at the end. And because this is not genre fiction (or, at least, it’s not structured as typical genre fiction), I’m having a harder and harder time trusting that the author is actually going somewhere with this story.” (This was around 20% into the novel—it didn’t improve.)
2. Head Hopping. Again, as mentioned in the above-linked blog post, I wrote: “Although I think Oliveira was trying to employ an omniscient POV, it’s actually more of a head-hopping style.” The viewpoint changes randomly from character to character with seemingly no logic or reason, which makes the lack of structure even worse, since as a reader, one cannot settle into a viewpoint and just go along for the ride . . . except for in those flashbacks, especially the ones that go on for far too long.
3. (Full) Name Calling. Oliveira has a weird habit of referring to characters by their full names: Mary Sutter. Amelia Sutter. James Blevens. Thomas Fall. Even within their own viewpoint! And it’s not as if they’re just being introduced at the beginning of a chapter or scene by their full name—it happens multiple times on a page. Then there’s the fact that Mary Sutter not only thinks of her mother by her first name, Amelia, she refers to her by her first name in dialogue.
4. The Sister Cliché. Mary Sutter is tall and gangly and not considered pretty. She’s brusque and has few social graces. Her twin sister (fraternal), however, is petite and pretty and the apple of everyone’s eye. Mary is useful while Jenny is decorative. Mary is practical while Jenny is romantic. Mary is sensible while Jenny is . . . well, you get where I’m going with that one. Not only does this cliché bother me, since there seemed to be no effort to go beyond these stereotypes, but it also bothered me because there was no reason for them to be twins, nor was there the need to set up the sisterly jealousy by having Thomas Fall first seem to be attracted to Mary and then fall for Jenny as soon as he met her.
5. There’s Something About Mary. However, even though Mary is described as too tall, gangly, mannish, unattractive, overbearing, acerbic, etc., every man who comes near her is automatically and inexplicably attracted to her.
As the book continues, even more viewpoints are introduced once Mary arrives in Washington, DC—Dorothea Dix, John Hays (aide to President Lincoln), President Lincoln, and more. Oh, and there’s another army doctor character introduced about halfway through who ends up playing a big role in the story, as well.
There’s a major lack of character development, as well as the development of relationships between characters. Mary Sutter wants to be a doctor because . . . she wants to be a doctor. That’s it. She wants to be a doctor. She does everything she can to learn how to be a doctor. The problem is, there’s no real motivation to it. She doesn’t seem to derive any pleasure out of what she does or what she learns throughout the book. She just wants to be a doctor. The best relationship development happens in about the first third of the book between Mary Sutter and James Blevens—and it’s mostly one-sided, on James’s side. And this isn’t just romantic relationships—there are occasional mentions of other nurses in the field hospitals, yet Mary has little to no interactions with any of them, and with few of the doctors other than Blevens and Stipp, as well. This lack of emotional connections keeps her a two-dimensional character who is at best boring and at worst unlikable.
Then, there are the scenes like this (beginning on p. 277):
In 1864, George McClellan, in his run as Democratic candidate opposite Abraham Lincoln, would complain that the failure of the Peninsular Campaign was due to many factors out of his control, including Lincoln’s great meddling in his plans, his failure to provide crucial reinforcements, the teeming hordes of Confederate troops, the inclement weather, the failure of the navy to properly defend the York River, the idiot mapmakers who mistook a river’s location that forced him to march miles out of his way, his recurring bouts of malarial fever due to the criminal lack of quinine, the abysmal roads which were nothing but a morass of mud, the swampy, nearly oceanic terrain, and finally, the wily Robert E. Lee, who decimated the Union troops in the last hopeless battle of Seven Days as they retreated down the Peninsula after the Union’s failure to seize Richmond. …
This is followed by at least another 200 to 300 words continuing this recitation of the research that Oliveira did. And this isn’t the only place this happens—it starts to happen with regularity throughout the last half of the book.
If I wanted to read nonfiction about the American Civil War, I would pull one of the many (many) nonfiction books on my shelves about the American Civil War (most from my days when I minored in it at LSU).
Then, there’s the ending. So disappointing! (Highlight paragraph to read spoiler) As mentioned before, the setup of this book was that somehow, even though he’s married in the beginning, Mary Sutter and James Blevens would end up together. Not only are their characters perfect for each other, but James is definitely attracted to her before he leaves for the war, and continues falling in love with her after they’re separated—he can’t stop thinking about her. But then the character of Dr. William Stipp comes along—a man more than twice Mary’s age (she’s in her early twenties, he’s in his fifties when we meet him) and for some strange reason, he ends up being the love interest.
Once I realized that was how the book would end, I pretty much gave up on even trying to enjoy it.
My rating matrix:
5 STARS = one of the best I’ve ever read
4 STARS = a great read, highly recommended
3 STARS = it was okay
2 STARS = I didn’t enjoy it all that much, not recommended
1 STAR = DNF (did not finish)
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