Review: The Nightingale Girls by Donna Douglas

Friday, June 27, 2014
Title: The Nightingale Girls
Author: Donna Douglas
Genre: historical fiction
Series: Nightingale Nurses #1
Pages: 512
Published: August 16, 2012
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 3 out of 5

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.

Reviewed by Danielle

I like Call The Midwives on BBC, so when I received a NetGalley email advertising a historical fiction novel that was supposed to be very similar, I decided to take a chance outside my usual time periods and give it a whirl.

The Nightingale Girls follows three trainee nurses in 1930s London. There’s Dora, the poor-but-hardworking East End girl, accepted to the prestigious Nightingale Teaching Hospital because she reminds the new Matron of herself and her roommates; Millie, the dissatisfied Lady, fleeing her responsibilities for fun and sense-of-purpose; and Helen, the bookish but sad daughter of a powerful hospital trustee. They’re pretty easily recognizable tropes, but due to very varied home lives and tragic pasts, all three are unique to read.

Unfortunately, I wanted nursing and class struggles, similar to the show the publishers are drawing comparisons to. What I got was three 200 page romances. Dora undergoes some teasing and almost fails an exam because she can’t afford a book, but otherwise, her different background doesn’t factor much into the story. Likewise, the book only shows one or two classes and then moves on to using the wards as set dressing. There are patients, some of them are sick, sometimes the girls are required to attend them, but large swathes of the book feature no more nursing than cleaning and making tea.

Instead, each girl is given a romance that takes up the large majority of this very long novel. One falls for a boy from home, one is trapped in a love triangle between a good friend and a baaad boy, and one, the most interesting and consequently best, falls for a patient of a different class. I don’t mind romance, and I was expecting a love interest for each, but it drives too much of the book. The girls claim they don’t want to get married and leave their beloved jobs, but I didn’t find that to be the case based on the narration.

There are a lot of subplots and four or five other POVs that make brief appearances to drive them. The new Matron is too modern and her assistant and the trustees don’t approve. The mean girl has problems at home. One of the love interests has problems at home. Someone knows secrets about someone else. Three teachers knit and have tea. None of it’s bad, in fact it’s good to give villains motivation, but the book is too long by half and these detours frequently pulled away from the little action in the main story.

Still, I like Millie a lot, one romance really gave me the feels, and I’m kind of interested in a modern Matron at a very old-fashioned school. Unfortunately, I’m very against rape as a plot point, particularly child sexual abuse, and it’s deployed liberally in one backstory. I don’t think it was necessary and the resolution where: [the love interest drives the abuser away, without talking to the victims, because his brother overheard them fighting, made me feel scummy. Something about it felt like the victim is his property now, so the abuser left. It’s even more disappointing because the victim had previously displayed some savvy, outsmarting the abuser, and then completely lost her head and couldn’t see that he’d taken a new victim. The character progression felt off.] With the exception of that one plot point, there’s nothing wrong with The Nightingale Girls. It just wasn’t particularly interesting, either.

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