Wendy's Reviews > My Name is Mary Sutter

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira
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Apr 19, 2010

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bookshelves: first-reads, 2010-reads, history-based-fiction, civil-war-books

Engrossing read, rich with historical detail, My Name is Mary Sutter tells the story of a woman determined to be a surgeon and how the Civil War gives her the chance to enter the male-dominated medical field.

While I think it's high time the North had an answer to the high-spirited and strong-willed Scarlett O'Hara, Mary Sutter is not quite it. She is determined (although it's never made quite clear why, and her desire waxes and wanes oddly) but she's not as likable (or as unlikeable) as Scarlett. And My Name is Mary Sutter is no Gone With the Wind.

I loved the idea of this book but found the execution of it uneven. (I think I might have preferred a non-fiction account of the women who became nurses and doctors during the Civil War.) Oliveira has definitely done her research, but the fiction she spins with it is a bit too light. She's better at details than characters.

Here's a few issues I had with the book:

Where's this going? -- There's a big buildup to a major event in the book which comes too early and falls too flat afterward. Things get so muddled that, for a time, we even lose track of the titular character.

Wait, who's talking? -- The writing is occasionally clunky and confusing. For example, sections are begun talking about people with pronouns so that it's not clear who is being referred to or who is speaking. Characters seem to be walking by but then jump into the conversation later. Actions are described which seemed to be implied as already happening or that don't fit what came before, like people sitting down when it seemed they already were. (These would be simple fixes, and to be fair, I have an advance copy which may have been corrected later. Ditto on the grammatical errors.)

Everybody loves Mary -- It seems that every man in the book (that's not a relative) is enamored with Mary. I get that the soldiers she treats would look at her with affection. I also see how her drive would be appealing, but she's described as less than beautiful, and she's just a bit one-note. I don't buy that all these men were so taken with her, and I don't get how she feels about them.

What about the other nurses? -- There's only brief reference to other women helping as nurses, and they have little interaction with Mary. Even if Mary is singular in her desire to become a surgeon, I would have liked seeing more camaraderie between the women and perhaps different characters illustrating the reasons behind why the women came to help, which ones lasted as nurses and why others didn't, etc.

Missed mixed emotions potential -- The idea of Mary getting her chance to get into medicine only because of a horrific war had a lot more dramatic potential than was played out. Mary could have been gleeful to get her first chances to do surgery and then realize guiltily that it was all at the terrible cost of the war. (This is hinted at with another character doing medical research, but coming from Mary it would have made her more real and sympathetic.)

You mean there's a war on? -- Besides the chapters with Lincoln and Hay and the other historical figures of the time, no one really voices any thoughts or opinions about the war. Details are stated blandly when they could have been news discussed between characters.

And about those historical figures -- They should not have been viewpoint characters in the book. Let them make a few appearances, but keep the action and focus on Mary and the rest.

And about those other characters -- The shifting perspectives with the many different characters was just a bit much, and occasionally I think a particular scene or point would have been better told from another character's viewpoint. At other times, important things happen without being really shown. For example, when one character has a change of heart about Mary, it comes out of nowhere, like there should have been a chapter in between with some dialogue. (Other chapters read like an outline of what's happening instead of fleshed-out story.) I'm fine with multi-person omniscience, but when your book is titled My Name is Mary Sutter, I would expect more about (and from) Mary.

The twin thing -- Why does Mary's sister Jenny have to be her twin? The sibling rivalry between the two would have worked just as well with her as an older or younger sister. It's never explicitly stated in the book, but it seems that Mary and Jenny are not identical. Mary's strongest physical characteristics seem to be her large build, wild hair and prominent chin, while Jenny is beautiful, blonde and delicate enough that her pregnancy puts her in danger. So why write them as twins?

A selectively stupid mother -- A major conflict in the book revolves around the fact that Mary's mother Amelia wants Mary to be home to help with Jenny's pregnancy & delivery. So, even though Amelia has taught Mary to be a midwife, somehow Mary knows more that her mother? I get that Amelia wouldn't want to deliver her own grandchild, but she acts like she knows nothin' 'bout birthin' babies when this is far from the truth. In general I did not care for the mother at all. And while I know grief can make people do crazy things, I didn't like how she was because of it.

And while we're on the subject of family -- The pull between Mary's sense of greater good/duty/most cherished dream vs. the pull of family obligations is interesting enough without throwing in a love triangle and sibling rivalry. (Mary leaving a happier family behind would have been emotionally interesting enough; the other issues just muddy things, making Mary's feelings and desires less clear.)

And, in the end -- The book looks only at the early part of the Civil War (yeah, it's a long war, and I can see why the author didn't try and cover it all) but there's an Epilogue of what happens after. And I didn't like it. The way the love element of the book is wrapped up is unexpected (OK) and unsatisfying (not OK). (I'm fine with Mary ending up with someone, but the who and how didn't really gel for me.) Other characters are left hanging. I have different ideas for how I would have ended things, but I'm keeping it spoiler-free here.

Yes, I'm being highly critical of this book, but only because I think it could have been better. As is, it's not a bad read, but the lost potential here really disappointed me. It's the kind of book that makes me think, hey, I should write a book, or at least I could help edit someone's to improve it. (You hear me, Viking? Give me a call.)

Great idea that doesn't quite live up to its promise. More time, a few rewrites, and some editing could have made this one great. (Perhaps I'll have to check out the official release and see how different it is. Or give the author's next book (if there is one) a try.)
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10/01/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Janneska (new)

Janneska Somehow I just can't help thinking that this review is even more interesting than the book itself.


Tammy Jones I agree wholeheartedly with you about the depiction of Mary's family and the endings! Thank you for putting into words my thoughts!


message 3: by Cheri (new)

Cheri Stine I logged on to this site to see if I was the only one less than thrilled with this book. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I so much wanted to love this book, but writing was "clunky" and story line undefined.


message 4: by Brelynn (new) - added it

Brelynn Downs Ah this! This describes exactly how I'm feeling! I so wanted to love this book! It has so much potential but the execution wasn't quite there.


message 5: by Renee (new) - added it

Renee Eveland I agree with this review. Presenting Lincoln's point of view seemed strange. I disliked Bonnie and Jake. It had a jolting incoherence and was too long. The author has some very strong points though. The writing itself was beautiful. The imagery and emotional depictions were wonderful. The research and details were often fascinating especially on the medical side.


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