A story that combines feminist striving with Civil War history, My Name Is Mary Sutter (Viking, $26.95), by first-time novelist Robin Oliveira, is a lovely work. Mary Sutter, a privileged young woman from Albany, New York, trained as a midwife, wishes to become a surgeon. Rejected by medical school and rebuffed by a physician she wanted to work with, and having watched her beautiful sister win the affection of her friend Thomas, Mary leaves for Washington to work in a wartime hospital. There she observes Union forces woefully unprepared for battle carnage. Mary is proud and determined; apprenticing herself to the hospital doctors, she becomes an accomplished field physician. Oliveira has done great work recreating real events and real places, but the story is never weighed down by research. I found myself thinking about Mary long after I finished the book.
In her ambitious book, The Invisible Bridge (Knopf, $26.95), Julie Orringer has created a family overwhelmed by the events of European history in the 1930s and ’40s. Andras Lévi travels from Budapest to Paris to study architecture. Everywhere there are portents of the deluge which will follow, but Andras, his friends, and his brother Tibor conduct their lives as though everything is normal. Paris is beautiful and the opportunities for the young architect are substantial. Meanwhile, the Nazis are closing in. Andras and Tibor return to Hungary and are eventually conscripted into work battalions; Orringer details the indignities visited on the Jewish population. Her expert writing and believable cast of characters result in a substantial retelling of World War II as experienced by one family in Hungary.
Sue Miller has written a lovely, touching book about the complications of the lives of middle-aged men and women. The novel revolves around a new play, The Lake Shore Limited (Knopf, $25.95), being tried out in Boston. Billy, the playwright, has incorporated her own experience from six years earlier when her lover, Gus, was on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center. Leslie, Gus’s sister, wants very much to fix up Billy with Sam, an architect and a good friend. Miller weaves the story like a piece of music, focusing chapters on four lead characters, all of whom are expertly portrayed, as are the relationships of spouses, lovers, parents and adult children in this fast-paced story.