If the phrase “women can be heroes” seems to you an outdated theme for a novel, even one set in the 1960s; if you’re dubious that the sheltered 19-year-old protagonist of Kristin Hannah’s “The Women,” to whom “the anger erupting on city streets and college campuses were as incomprehensible as the conflict in faraway Vietnam,” would morph overnight into a fearless nurse on the front lines of the war, “The Women” is not for you.
Throughout the novel, implausible yet predictable plot twists, character development, and dialogue do battle with the author’s engaging storytelling and socially aware messaging. One day protagonist Frankie McGrath is “earning her MRS degree” at a San Diego women’s college; the next, she’s joining the Army Nurse Corps, following her beloved, deceased brother to a US outpost in Pleiku, a site of heavy fighting. During Frankie’s two tours of duty, which occupy one-third of this 464-page novel, the reader is regaled with — and/or overwhelmed by — gory descriptions of the injuries Frankie and her colleagues treat, often without ample staff and supplies. Hannah’s vivid prose does a great job of convincing the reader that war is hell — but also, that reading about war is hell.
Despite the author’s missteps, and undoubtedly due to her strengths, legions of devoted Kirstin Hannah fans have made her first 19 novels into blockbuster bestsellers. They have been Best Books of the Year and won the People’s Choice for Fiction. They have been Reese Witherspoon and Jenna Bush book club picks. Screen adaptations include the popular Netflix series “Firefly Lane.” According to Publisher’s Weekly, the average book published in the US sells about 500 copies. Hannah’s 2015 “The Nightingale” has sold 4.5 million. The (first) print run for “The Women” is 1 million copies.
The accessible style and heart-thumping romantic subplots of “The Women” explain the former lawyer’s eminence in her chosen field. Her oeuvre’s formula is simple, and in its own way, admirable. Like her previous historical novels, “The Women” bears some resemblance to a weightless Harlequin-style romance, its plot points pivoting on one improbably perfect love affair with one seemingly perfect man after another. “Alone, he stood tall and straight in his worn fatigues,” Hannah writes of one of Frankie’s lovers. “From here he looked solid and steady, the perfect sailor, but she saw the clenched line of his jaw. He raised a single hand … then pressed it to his heart.”
As she did in her previous novels, Hannah adds gravitas to “The Women” by situating her tale inside a weighty historical event: America’s most controversial war. By weaving statistics and critical perspectives into the narrative, Hannah does more than entertain her readers; she educates them — about the lifesaving friendships between the women of the Vietnam War, among other important, underreported historical truths.
Of the mutilated soldiers who bleed out on her operating table, Frankie, who is white, reflects, “The majority were Black or Hispanic or poor, straight out of high school. They didn’t have parents who could pull strings to get them out of service.” Through the wide-open eyes of Barb, Frankie’s fellow nurse and best friend, we get an insider’s view of the racism and resulting uprisings at home. “Ever since your brother got back from Viet Nam,” Barb’s mother writes, “he’s been angry in a way that will get him killed. Those college white boys might get away with violence at their protests, but it won’t fly for Will and his Black Panther friends.”
As the years and Frankie’s ill-fated romances roll by, the war — and the coverup of its devastating consequences — goes on. “The Stars and Stripes reported no American casualties yesterday,” Barb tells Frankie. “Seven men died in OR1 alone.”
“The American government was lying about the war,” Frankie realizes. “The America Frankie believed in … was gone, or lost. Or maybe it had always been a lie.”
Frankie’s wide-eyed disillusionment with the war is only exacerbated by her return home. Again and again, she encounters American citizens’ denial (including her own parents’) that women (10,000 of them, according to Hannah’s Author’s Note) played a vital part in the unwinnable Vietnam War.
Unfortunately, Hannah’s noble intentions are countered by her proclivity for underestimating her readers. On March 14, 1969, Frankie’s last day in Vietnam, Frankie reflects, “She’d joined the ANC to find her brother and found herself instead; in war, she’d found out who she really was and who she wanted to be. … What would life look like stateside?”
Spoiler alert: It doesn’t look good. Returning to her parents’ cosseted world, Frankie is overtaken by the stark contrast between the life she’d chosen (but would a girl like Frankie really slip so seamlessly into wartime in a Vietnamese hamlet?) and the life that chose her. Again, Hannah resorts to worn cliche: “How could this cool, white, moneyed world exist in a bubble, while in Vietnam a war was raging and here at home, people were protesting the violence and fighting for fundamental civil rights?” Suffering from PTSD that spirals into addiction, Frankie refuses to see what the reader realized 100 pages ago: that she is idealizing the good and bad men in her life instead of facing her own problems.
In the end, this reader was both taken and annoyed by Frankie; taken by her author’s skill, and annoyed by her lack of faith in her readers. Cut by half, edited to delete the predictable, the “matronizing,” and the obvious, “The Women” would have been an even stronger contribution to Hannah’s body of work, and to her millions of fans’ understanding of American history.
By Kristin Hannah
St. Martin’s Press, 480 pp., $30
Meredith Maran is the LA-based author of a dozen books, most recently “The New Old Me.”