Sometimes a book’s title and cover blurb are its own worst enemies. My Name is Mary Sutter has been ill-served by both, which is a complete and total shame because Sutter may turn out to be one of my favorite books of the year – a moving, multi-perspective story of the Civil War that is both nerve-grindingly realistic and deeply lyrical.
When I put Sutter on hold at the library I was under the impression that it was a Civil War-era novel told in the first person, a nice little story about a midwife wanting to become a surgeon but encountering the prejudices of her own time against female doctors. The blurb led me to expect a “feisty” heroine with modern notions of gender equality mixed together with a predictable love story – in other words, the “typical appealing female character in another time” historical novel.
After a slightly slow start, I plunged into the worlds of Civil War Albany, New York and Washington, DC. Since I’ve lived and worked in both cities, it was a special thrill to imagine the modern world peeled away from familiar streets, hotels and churches to reveal the past world underneath. Oliveira has constructed a solid scaffolding of period research that supports the story but never overwhelms it – some authors just know how to make an era feel like the past while allowing their characters to live in the present moment. Oliveira nails this.
She also brilliantly constructs several unforgettable set pieces – an amputation, a birth and a battle. Her prose moves – I could hear the chaotic noise of a battlefield and feel the jangled nerves of a doctor. I rarely buy a book after I’ve checked it out of the library and read it – last night, I bought a copy of Sutter online just so that I could go back and read these scenes whenever I felt like it.
Mary Sutter is an interesting character but not in any of the ways I expected – she can be quiet and withdrawn (how many authors make that gamble with their lead character and find a way to make it work?) but also relentlessly stubborn and bordering on the selfish. There are no sudden transformations here – the ugly duckling doesn’t turn into a swan. Mary is plain and awkward and knows her own mind – she stays that way throughout the book.
But Mary's point of view is hardly the only perspective in the book - Oliveira also convincingly gets into the minds of a varied cast of characters - including Mary's mother, two male surgeons and even - I never thought this would work but it does - Abraham Lincoln. The result is a richer, deeper and more anguished view of the Civil War than would have been possible from just one character's perspective.
As I mentioned, the book’s first two chapters are a bit slow as Oliveira takes her time introducing us to Mary Sutter’s family and her situation in Albany. She occasionally missteps with some overbearing visual metaphors – one shattered blue and white teacup that is meant to represent the sundered Union immediately comes to mind. I also felt that one of the key relationships between Mary and another lead character early in the book was not developed strongly enough. Mary makes several key decisions based on the results of this relationship and I felt that the reader should have been more emotionally involved in that relationship from the beginning.
I’m guessing that Oliveira’s publishers had two choices – sell Sutter as the literary historical novel that it is, under its original title The Last Beautiful Day or pitch it to the primarily female, historical fiction crowd as My Name is Mary Sutter. My hope is that Sutter will find an audience far beyond the HF crowd and that many readers will give themselves the opportunity to enjoy this unflinching story of beauty, heartbreak and fear.