This book was good fun. Set in the 1920s, it follows Evie, a young American woman who wants to the first female obstetrician in the US in a time where girls even attending uni was frowned upon, let alone becoming doctors, let alone doctors that helped women give birth. The story traces her attempts to get in med school in NYC, and then to pay for med school once she’s in – she does this by becoming a showgirl with the Ziegfied Follies (another so called ‘scandalous’ choice that she strives to keep hidden lest she be expelled from university). At the same time a romance is brewing – Evie is falling in love with Thomas Whitman, a rich banker dude who is super nice and cool, but he keeps travelling abroad for business, and Evie is worried that because he’s such a high flyer, his relationship with her (and her associated scandals) could compromise his family business, etc etc…
This story actually reminded me a bit of the Phryne Fisher series – cool chicks fighting the patriarchy for the good of others when it was extremely hard to do so, replete with Chanel ball gowns, lipstick, champagne, jazz, whiskey and dancing. Lester really set the scene for prohibition era NYC really well, particularly with regards to descriptions of the Village, the Upper East Side, speakeasies, fashion and the lives of the wealthy.
The most powerful part of the story for me though were the descriptions of what it was like for women to give birth during the 20s. Lester did a bunch of research into obstetrics of the time, and basically, birth was seen as pathological. Women were usually sedated so they didn’t even know what was happening, and were treated as though they had no knowledge or understanding of their own bodies (which was true in many cases since it was seen as ‘improper’ for women to learn about the reproductive system and genitals). It was upsetting to read about. Equally disturbing was the way Evie was treated in med school, as the only woman – she was badly bullied, prevented from doing what she actually wanted to, and basically treated really disdainfully. To inform this part of Evie’s story, Lester researched the lecture notes of one of the earliest female med students.
This is definitely a work of commercial fiction, rather than literary. Lester recently made the shift to commercial fiction, and I think she’s hit her stride – while I liked one of her earlier, literary novels, this one seemed much tighter in scope, theme, and character. Her research in generally really well integrated, and Thomas and Evie are both very likeable characters, and you want them to get together the whole time. However there wasn’t a whole lot of tension in the relationship – Evie, in order to do what she thinks is ‘best’ for Tommy’s life and career ends up making some fairly major decisions and hiding some fairly major pieces of info from him, yet he forgives her instantly when he finds all this stuff out, which didn’t seem that realistic to me. Also Evie’s major decisions in themselves didn’t seem quite like what an actual person might choose. In fact I felt like there wasn’t much tension in the book in general – while Evie faced some obstacles, they were always really quickly resolved before we had time to feel stressed about them. (Apart from her getting bulled in med school. That was really well handled, and frustrating and upsetting).
On the whole though, very fun, likeable characters, some awesome descriptions of lavish balls and parties, and some more upsetting descriptions of obstetrics in the 20s.