Sunday, June 7, 2009

Book Review: "Year of Wonders" is exactly that

Hey, let's read a novel about the plague in 1666! That's sounds like fun!

OK, not exactly the reaction you would expect from someone looking for an entertaining read and while "Year of Wonders" by Geraldine Brooks isn't a "fun" book, it is an outstanding book and a worthwhile read.

Inspired by the English village of Eyam, which voluntarily quarantined itself in 1666 to avoid spreading the plague to neighboring villages, it is a remarkable look at the villagers' sense of community, of their relationships to those around them, and of their relationship to a God that is seen by some as wrathful and by others as setting a test through which the survivors will emerge stronger.

Ms. Brooks' protagonist is a remarkable woman, Anna Frith. Married at 15, the mother of two and a widow by the time she is 20, Anna serves as our eyes and ears in the unnamed village. She becomes far more than an observer however. As we live with Anna through the plague, witnessing the loss of her family and friends along with more than 75% of the villagers, she finds herself growing in strength and confidence, nurtured by the charismatic and visionary young priest, Michael Monpellion, and his wife, Elinor. Together, the three serve as the foundation for sustaining the village through heartbreak and loss, tending to souls as well as bodies.

In truth, "Year of Wonders" isn't necessarily the kind of book I would have spotted on a shelf and picked up, despite my love of history. I'd seen it before (it was published in 2002) but hadn't ever thought to pick it up. OK, I'm a guy...the picture of a woman in a bonnet on the cover didn't exactly sing out to me. However, it came highly recommended as a gift for my wife and, after she read and was enthralled by it, I thought I should take a crack at it. I'm glad I did. Yes, there's a bit of melodrama, at times Anna and Elinor do seem a bit too saintly, and the last two chapters offer a dramatic change in tone and course, but in the end, those bits didn't really matter.

"Year of Wonders" is a quick read and well worth the effort, both in recognition of the people of Eyam memorialized in prose and of the view it gives us into a world where people are faced with the choice of fear and violence or hope and strength.

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