The Nightingale Girls is the story of three very different girls who have signed up as student nurses at the best program in England in 1936. England is in between the World Wars and is mourning the death of the popular King George V. It's a time of transition for the country, medicine and the hospital.
Dora is an East Ender with a strong cockney accent, a large family living in an overcrowded and squalid home. She's very close to her mother, siblings and grandmother but is trying to stand up to her abusive stepfather. The chance to get into the nursing program gives her a chance for her own vocation, as well as a life of her own and an escape from an intolerable home situation.
Her roommate Millie comes from the opposite end of the social spectrum. An aristocrat whose best friend is a Duke's daughter, Millie has chosen a very different path. Millie is the only child of a wealthy lord and the estate is entailed; Millie must marry and have a son to keep the estate in the immediate family (something we've all become familiar with particularly after Downton Abbey). Millie loves her home and does want to keep it but she's not ready to marry and live a sheltered life. Instead, Millie works hard to earn her nursing credentials. But when Millie works hard, she doesn't give up her social life - so she's often still sneaking into their shared room past curfew.
The third roommate, Helen, comes from a medical family and has strong ties to the hospital. Her mother is the most outspoken trustee at the hospital and interferes with the way that it is run. Her mother has problems with boundaries in general and a tendency to bully whomever she can. Helen is particularly vulnerable since she tries so hard to live up to her mother's unrealistic expectations.
The three roommates are each sympathetic and deeply likable characters working through tough situations. Dora is expected to have a hard time adjusting. It's clear that though she's scared and nervous about being so different from her privileged colleagues, Dora does continue to speak her mind. Dora isn't willing to accept charity or help, which makes things difficult - I kept hoping that she'd just accept a loan for her medical books! But Dora makes her own way. Millie's so glamorous, it's a surprise to find out just how empathetic she is. Out of all the nursing students, it's Millie that sees Dora's situation and notices the patient, Blanche, that the others seem to ostracize. Millie reaches out and befriends them and genuinely cares - just as she avoids the social climbing characters that she meets along the way. But Millie's taste in men doesn't seem to be as good as her ability to read women - which makes for some tough moments and fun reading. Helen has a tough path as well as she's isolated from the other nursing students and tries to please her difficult mother. In her daily letters to her mother, she tries win her approval but also keep some things private. It's the struggle to keep her own secrets that leads to Helen's troubles.
Donna Douglas's The Nightingale Girls reminds me a bit of Call the Midwife as the girls have to follow the structures and schedules of British nursing students. In 1936, the Nightingale Girls are younger, students not nursing sisters and they live during a more restrictive time. But their concerns, their struggles and friendships are just as fascinating as the characters we've come to love in Call the Midwife.
ISBN-10: 0099569353 - Hardcover
Publisher: Arrow (September 10, 2012), 512 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley.
About the Author:
Donna Douglas is a freelance journalist and -- as Donna Hay -- had a number of successful romantic novels published by Orion.