***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: this novel was a beautiful work of historical fiction until the last twenty pages, which were so unbelievable and out of context that the book was ruined for me.
The writing. I absolutely loved the research and the language of this novel. Ms. Brooks did a beautiful job of depicting a 1600s English village--especially the brutality of their hard-scrabble life. Everything was small and gritty and real. The research regarding mining in the 17th century and life in a mining community was fascinating. The prose was almost poetic at times.
Distance of the main character. However, I struggled throughout the novel to feel close to Anna Frith. This book demands closeness--we are, after all, stuck in a village of some 300 people, quarantined with them by the plague--but I felt like I was observing her from a distance. I respected Anna, I admired her, and enjoyed watching her growing (and believable) strength in that isolated community, but I didn't feel she was...real? I still wonder how this happened: was it her relative perfection? The way even her flaws were excusable, particularly from a 21st-century feminist morality? Somehow she was a bit reserved and formal, even to me, even while experiencing such pain and revealing her inner thoughts. Why?
The ending. This absolutely killed the novel, in as little twenty pages. Such a disappointment! It would have been quite unusual enough (and a great ending) for Anna to become a healer in her own village--to replace the Gowdies. But instead Ms. Brooks throws twists and impossibilities our way: the rector that Anna (and we) admired turns out to have been a horrible husband to Anna's best friend and a religious fanatic. Anna rescues a newborn baby and runs away to North Africa, marrying an old Barbary doctor (but in a platonic arrangement, which seems unlikely), becoming a midwife for Muslim women, and raising her two daughters in the "safety" of the doctor's harem. WHAT.
My second try. This was my second Geraldine Brooks novel. I found the historical sections of People of the Book to be a bit cold and distant, and the melodrama and feminism of the contemporary sections to be overwrought. Year of Wonders is clearly the work of the same author, with a mysteriously distant main character, and an unnecessarily melodramatic ending--meant to be cathartic to the reader, but instead being so impossible and unrealistic as to be disappointing.