book review: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue




THE PULL OF THE STARS by Emma Donoghue
★★★★☆
HarperAvenue, 2020




I have a very strong stomach but I am triggered by three things. 1. Vomiting, 2. Childbirth, 3. Pandemics (this last one evoking existential dread more than nausea but do I find reading about them almost as painful as living through one). This book has all three, so, it’s a testament to how much I like Emma Donoghue’s writing that I: a. Made it through this book, and b. Actually enjoyed it. 

Set in a maternity ward in 1918 Dublin over the course of three days, The Pull of the Stars follows Julia Power, a nurse attending to expectant mothers who are sick with the flu.  It’s a fast-paced, frantic novel that contrasts the hectic episodes on the ward with the tender, budding friendship between Julia and her new volunteer helper, an uneducated girl named Bridie Sweeney.

This book is thoroughly engrossing–it immerses you in a borderline excessive amount of detail, but Donoghue manages it in a way so that it pulls the reader in rather than alienating them.  Full disclosure, I had to skip entire paragraphs of this book that were too gruesome for me, but it was entirely with regret that I did so–there’s something so transfixing about Donoghue’s storytelling, and I’ve felt this about all three of her books that I’ve read.  She also nails the evocation of this Irish hospital in a city under siege by a deadly virus. With obvious parallels to 2020 in a lot of ways, this still felt firmly fixed in its historical setting, which was a positive for me.

I did find The Pull of the Stars rather heavy-handed at times (notably in its treatment of Irish political history; it felt very transparent that Donoghue was framing Julia as an outsider to the rebellion in order to spoon feed the reader about how maybe the British empire aren’t the good guys after all!–though I will concede I probably read more of these narratives than most), but that was my only real complaint.  On the whole I thought this was a compelling, moving read, though I must caution that you need either a strong stomach or a strong conviction to make it through.

I won this copy in a Goodreads giveaway; all thoughts are my own.

17 thoughts on “book review: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

  1. Does it not feel surreal? Reading about the thing you’re living through? That is what I felt when reading The Plague by Albert Camus a few months back. 😅 And I too love Donoghue’s writing, have read only Room till now though.

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    • Honestly I thought reading about the pandemic in this book would give me a lot more existential dread and anxiety but I felt kind of removed from it (which was a good thing, for me!) It felt so rooted in its historical context that the 2020 parallels didn’t feel overwhelming.

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  2. I’m glad that you liked this as well! I have a pretty high tolerance for gruesome medical things, but yes, there were some difficult scenes in this one. I expected to be more disturbed by the pandemic content, but actually Donoghue evokes time and place so well that I felt very far away from Covid-19.

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    • Gruesome medical things tend to be fine for me, it’s literally just childbirth that I can’t handle at all! God knows why. But I agree completely re: the way the pandemic was handled, I really thought I’d experience a lot more dread and anxiety while reading but I was glad that I felt so removed from it. The babies were giving me enough anxiety.

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      • I think it makes sense that childbirth is harder to read! I’ve obviously just read a lot of gory childbirth books and become inured to it 🙂 Having said that, the mention of the symphysiotomy was enough, I am very glad nobody in the novel had to actually go through it.

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  3. Great review, I’m glad to see you liked this one, in spite of some unsettling details! It’s been a while since I’ve read any Donoghue but have enjoyed a couple of her books in the past so I’m looking forward to picking this one up at some point. Good to know about the gruesome bits in advance.

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  4. I have really enjoyed everything I’ve read by Donoghue so I definitely want to read this one but I hate any sort of depiction of vomiting so I will probably be skipping paragraphs too! This sounds somewhat similar to her book The Wonder, in its depiction of historical Irish poverty and the main character coming in as an outsider to that.

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    • For once in my life the vomiting was the least of my concern!!! There’s a bit of it but actually not as much as I was expecting. But yeah, it was a bit like The Wonder! The protagonist of The Pull of the Stars isn’t quite as much of an outsider, but her encounter with Bridie definitely makes her reframe the way she thinks about poverty in her city.

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