August 17, 2008

Year of Wonders

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks
Historical Fiction
336 Pages
2001 Penguin Books
Finished on 8/12/08
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of the apples tumbling into the cellar bins. Smells and sights and sounds that said this year it would be all right: there'd be food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came. I used to love to walk in the apple orchard at this time of the year, to feel the soft give underfoot when I trod on a fallen fruit. Thick, sweet scents of rotting apple and wet wood. This year, the hay stooks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me.

They brought the apples yesterday, a cartload for the rectory cellar. Later pickings, of course: I saw brown spots on more than a few. I had words with the carter over it, but he told me we were lucky to get as good as we got, and I suppose it's true enough. There are so few people to do the picking. So few people to do anything. And those of us who are left walk around as if we're half asleep. We are all so tired.

Publisher's Blurb:

When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to an isolated village, a housemaid named Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. Through Anna's eyes we follow the story of the fateful year of 1666, as she and her fellow villagers confront the spread of disease and superstition. As death reaches into every household and villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must find the strength to confront the disintegration of her community and the lure of illicit love. As she struggles to survive and grow, a year of catastrophe becomes instead annus mirabilis, a "year of wonders."

Inspired by the true story of Eyam, a village in the rugged hill country of England, Year of Wonders is a richly detailed evocation of a singular moment in history. Written with stunning emotional intelligence and introducing "an inspiring heroine" (The Wall Street Journal), Brooks blends love and learning, loss and renewal into a spellbinding and unforgettable read.

I love historical fiction: novels with fully realized characters (particularly strong female characters), richly textured plots and historical details that educate as well as entertain. Brooks has created a strong and believable narrator, reminiscent of Donna Cross's Joan (Pope Joan), Mary Doria Russell's Agnes (Dreamers of the Day), and Alan Brennert's Rachel (Moloka'i). In this fascinating debut novel, the author quickly draws the reader into an engrossing, suspenseful and surprisingly unpredictable story. It's one of those rare works that has a remarkable sense of time and place, touching the reader with powerful emotions as if they themselves had experienced the crisis.

When I have a tallow stub, I read until it gutters. Mrs. Mompellion always allowed me to take the stubs from the rectory, and although there are very few nowadays, I do not know how I would manage without. For the hour in which I am able to lose myself in someone else's thoughts is the greatest relief I can find from the burden of my own memories.

Brooks is a consummate storyteller and as I read the final paragraphs, I found myself planning ahead, hoping to find more books to read about the plague (always a sign of a good historical novel). I found the ending quite satisfying and even thought it left room for the possibility of a sequel.

You can listen to an interview with Geraldine Brooks on NPR's All Things Considered here.


  1. Anonymous8:25 PM

    My afternoon book group had quite the discussion when we read this one. We are reading the author's new one, PEOPLE OF THE BOOK, for October.

  2. Anonymous11:08 PM

    This is one of my favorite historical novels. Great review!

  3. Have you read Doomsday Book by Connie Willis? It is also a GREAT book about the plague.

  4. I read this a couple of years ago and enjoyed it so much more than I expected.

  5. Can't wait to chat about it tonight. I haven't yet finished it, but am absolutely savoring it.

  6. Yay! I loved this book and glad you did too. It's one I wouldn't mind re-reading. Don't think I heard that NPR interview, so I'll have to check it out! Thanks for the link.

  7. Oh I am so glad you loved it! Brooks is a superb writer. You must, must, must read The People of the Book. It's SO good!

  8. I loved this book too. I was surprised at how much I liked it actually! Great review.

  9. I read this years ago, but it remains a favorite in my mind. I plan on revisiting it someday. So glad you enjoyed it.

  10. This is very good news! :) I also loved reading its praises from the above comments. It's been a long time coming, but I think I'll be getting to it this year.

    Oh yes, and Pope Joan, too. I missed out on reading this one with an online book group. I still have it on my TBR list, though. It'll probably be a 2009 read.

  11. Kay - We had a great discussion last night. Everyone seemed to enjoy the book and I even wound up discovering something I had misunderstood (at the very ending of the book), thanks to the discussion. My sister-in-law has read People of the Book and says it's quite good. I plan to read it and March.

    Carrie K. - Thanks! Have you read any others by Brooks? If so, which would you recommend to read next?

    Lisa - No, I haven't, but I'll add the title to my TBR list. I think I tried to read something else by Willis and couldn't get into it. Maybe Doomsday will be a better choice.

    Mary - I was pleasantly surprised, too. I enjoy Brooks' writing style.

    MaryKate - It was a fun (and informative) discussion, don't you think? I'm glad you're enjoying it.

    Andi - Now that I know the outcome, I can see how it'd be interesting to read a second time. I liked the plot twists and was glad it wasn't as predictable as I anticipated.

    Heather - I agree. She's a fabulous writer and I'm anxious to give some of her other books a read. So far, The People of the Book is the most appealing. Thanks for the rec!

    Holly - I was surprised, too. I was a little concerned it was going to be too dry, but I was drawn in from the very first page and never once felt it lag.

    Thanks for stopping by. I've got your blog bookmarked!

    Tara - I think it's a good book for re-reading. The writing is so rich and the characters are drawn so well, I'm sure I'll be thinking of them for months to come.

    Joy - I think it's one you'll enjoy quite a bit. I don't think it's as good as Pope Joan, but it's close. Very close.

  12. This was a book group read several years ago and sparked such great discussion. I loved it. I've yet to read anything else by Brooks but really want to read her latest book People of the Book.

  13. This has been on Mt. TBR for a very long time! I must get to it!

  14. This has been on my TBR for quite some time. Thanks for the review and reminder!

  15. Anonymous6:40 AM

    Hi Lesley, So interesting that you compare Anna to Rachel Kalama in Molokai. I hadn't thought to make that connection but now that you mention it there really are many similarities. Great book, great review!

  16. Beautiful review, Les. I've had this on the shelf for years. After hearing so many good things about it I've got to move it to where I can see it. The problem is the pile of review books and ARCs waiting for me. I think I should refuse them but then they sound so good that I can't.

    Hope your vacation was perfect. Can't wait to see some pictures and hear about it.

  17. Anonymous5:05 AM

    Ohhh, I loved Rachel from Moloka'i - I will give this one a try based on your great review!

  18. Iliana - I've heard good things about People of the Book. I'll probably go for that one first.

    Teddy Rose - You'll wonder why you let it sit for so long! ;)

    Lisamm - Thanks! BTW, have you read Pope Joan? It's another great read and I can't recommend it enough!

    Booklogged - Aw, thanks. And, yes, you definitely need to move to the top of your TBR stack. I know, I know. I have the same problem with my stacks of ARCs, but every once in a while I force myself to ignore them and read something that's been here for a lot longer. Fortunately, my f2f book group is helping me get to some of the oldies.

    The vacation was very nice. I'm hoping to get the pics up shortly. I have such a love/hate relationship with my digital camera. It takes beautiful pictures, but I can't seem to control the quantity! I always wind up with hundreds and spend days resizing, cropping, naming, etc.

    Stephanie - And then when you're finished with this one you'll have to give Pope Joan a try. That is, if you haven't already read it. It's one of my favorites.

  19. Bybee - Ooops, sorry I missed your comment there. It's almost exactly what Teddy Rose said, so I didn't see it.

    Hope you get to read the book soon. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

  20. Anonymous11:22 AM

    I really enjoyed this book as well, including the ending which I know some people had problems with, but for me, I liked that it didn't take the traditional turn it could (and appeared to be for a bit) have done. And yes, a sequel would be great!

  21. Lesley - I think all but one person in my book group was ok with the ending. I'm always up for a twist or unpredictable outcome.


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