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The Women
(Review, Synopsis & Summary)

By Kristin Hannah



Book review and synopsis for The Women by Kristin Hannah, a intimate historical drama about a young woman who enlists as a nurse in the Vietnam War.

Synopsis

In Kristin Hannah's The Women, Frankie McGrath is a young woman from a wealthy family who decides to enlist as a nurse in the Vietnam War after her older brother is killed in action.

In doing so, she leaves her sheltered and comfortable life in California to serve in a war-ravaged country working under dangerous conditions. When she returns, the atmosphere in America is hostile to veterans, dismissive of women's contributions in the war and she struggles to reassimilate.

In a story about patriotism, friendship, remembrance and defying expectations, The Women tells an often-overlooked story of the courageous women who served in Vietnam.

(The Full Plot Summary is also available, below)

Full Plot Summary

Chapter-by-Chapter Summary
See the Chapter-by-Chapter Summary of The Women
Quick Plot Summary

The two-paragraph version: Frankie McGrath is a young woman from a wealthy family who enlists to serve in Vietnam and becomes a skilled surgical nurse over the course of two tours of duty. She becomes close with a doctor, Jamie, who is killed. She falls in love with a navy pilot, Rye, but he is killed just before returning home. When Frankie return home, she struggles to assimilate. Her service to her country is dismissed -- as being un-ladylike and because she was a non-combat veteran. She has a mental breakdown, but with the support of her friends and fellow former nurses Barb and Ethel, Frankie is able to find her footing as a surgical nurse again, reconcile with her parents and begins seeing a nice man.

However, when the war ends and the POWs arrive home, she realizes Rye is alive -- but that he was married and with a child the whole time. Distraught, Frankie goes on a downward spiral, getting suspended from work and taking pills, while she starts secretly seeing Rye who insists he will leave his wife. Frankie finally realizes Rye has been lying when his wife delivers their second child, and Frankie accidentally overdoses on pills. Frankie is taken to a treatment facility and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. When she leaves, Frankie starts over in Montana, buying a farmhouse which she turns into a ranch called The Last Best Place to serve as a refuge for women who served in Vietnam. In November 1982, she attends the unveiling of the Vietnam War Memorial and sees Jamie there who apparently survived his injuries.

In Part One, in May 1966, Frances "Frankie" Grace McGrath, 20, is a young woman from a wealthy family with a decorated military history whose brother Finley is about to ship out to serve in the navy in the Vietnam War, along with his best friend Rye Walsh. Finley is killed in action, but Frankie decides to enlists as a nurse. She attends Basic training and ships out in March 1967. She befriend two fellow nurses, Barb and Ethel. Frankie eventually becomes a surgical nurse, working with surgeon Dr. Jamie Callahan. They become close, but just before his tour of duty is complete, Jamie's helicopter is shot down and he is killed.

Soon, Frankie is reassigned to more dangerous location and is becoming an increasingly capable nurse. While Frankie's tour of duty is due to be complete in March 1968, she sees that her skills are needed there and decides to re-enlist. At a party, she is reunited with Rye Walsh, who is now a respected navy officer. Rye is initially engaged but breaks it off to be Frankie, and Rye decides to re-enlist so they can be together in Vietnam.

In March 1969, Frankie finally heads back to California after her second tour of duty comes to a close. Rye is due home in 27 days as well. Frankie struggles to reassimilate back home, plagued with nightmares from the war and the realities of hostile war protestors. She alienates friends and her parents are embarrassed of her war record. She is devastated to learn that Rye has been killed in action. After she gets fired from her hospital nursing job, she has a mental breakdown and leaves home after fighting with her parents. Frankie goes to the VA for help with her mental health, but is turned away since she wasn't in combat. Finally, Frankie calls Barb and Ethel in desperation. Ethel decides to move Frankie into the bunkhouse at her father's farmhouse so Frankie can have some time to figure out the next phase of her life.

Part Two opens in Virginia in April 1971. Frankie, now 25, is doing well and working as a surgical nurse. She's been staying with Barb and Ethel in the bunkhouse they remodeled into a two-bedroom cottage. Frankie is in D.C. with Barb attending anti-war protests when she learns that her mother has had a stroke. Frankie finally goes home and reconciles with her parents.

Frankie gets involved with an organization dedicated to bringing home prisoners of war, and begins seeing Henry Acevedo, a psychiatrist and anti-war protestor. When she becomes pregnant, they agree to get married. However, when the war ends and the POWs arrive home, she realizes Rye is alive. When she miscarries, she ends her engagement with Henry. Frankie begins to take a lot of pills, her work life begins to suffer and she gets suspended from work. Meanwhile, she begins secretly seeing Rye, who assures her he plans to leave his wife.

Frankie doesn't realize Rye has been lying until she learns his wife has just given birth to their second child. Distraught, Frankie accidentally overdoses on pills. In response, Frankie's parents check her into a treatment facility run by Henry, who tells her she has probably been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder from her time in Vietnam.

Frankie spends the next few months in treatment. She then decides to leave and start over, purchasing a dilapidated farmhouse in Missoula. She takes in Donna, another nurse struggling with PTSD from Vietnam. Together they rebuild the property a ranch called the Last Best Place that serves as a refuge for women who'd served in Vietnam. The book ends with Frankie attending the unveiling of the Vietnam War Memorial and seeing Jamie there who apparently survived and is divorced now.

For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chapter Summary.

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Book Review

In The Women, Kristin Hannah continues her strong record of telling compelling and intimate historical dramas about women, this time focusing on a nurse serving in Vietnam.

Frankie’s character has clearly been crafted to serve the story and provides a vehicle to represent the experiences of the female veterans of Vietnam. Through Frankie, Hannah explores the lives of nurses serving in Vietnam as well as the difficulty of reassimilating afterwards.

Despite the war-ravaged setting and the tumultuous times stateside, The Women is a story gently and compassionately told. Hannah’s writing is as capable and confident as ever. I think in the hands of a less experienced storyteller this story could perhaps drag on or become too dark, too wearisome or just repetitive.

Instead, Hannah manages to tackle this topic and introduce a lot of very real tragedies and difficulties during that time while keeping things interesting and occasionally even lighthearted or hopeful. There are many moments of darkness, but also moments of relief that offer some respite.

To be honest, I’m not someone with any particular interest in war stories and the Vietnam War period has never been high on my list. But Hannah managed to draw me into these characters and their struggles. I found The Women quite engrossing, which was an unexpected surprise.

Some Criticism

I think the worst thing you could probably say about The Women would be that there is some genericism to the characters. Frankie is the typical smart, likeable young woman with an independent streak that is commonly found in historical fiction novels.

In general, the characters and plot feel very much like they were selected in order to help tell a story that would reflect a certain range of experiences during this time period. That said, I still found them effective and believable, so this aspect of the story didn’t really bother me.

Read it or Skip it?

The Women isn’t a story that breaks new ground or offers any sort of life-changing type insights, and I think that’s okay. I don’t think every story worth being told needs to be.

Instead, it’s a confident and welcome addition to a growing body of beautifully told stories about women, offering depth and infusing life into these figures that for a long time have been largely relegated to the sidelines in books, movies and other media.

The Women is an unchallenging and “safe” type of book, but it’s one I enjoyed. Hannah’s newest offering is a quick read that’s worth the time, and I’ll be looking forward to what she comes up with next.

See The Women on Amazon.

P.S. If you liked this, you might also like Hannah’s previous novel, The Four Winds.

P.P.S. This reminded me a lot of The Giver of Stars, too.

The Women Audiobook

Narrator: Julia Whelan & Kristin Hannah
Length: 15 hours

Hear a sample of the The Women audiobook on Libro.fm.

Discussion Questions

  1. Did The Women change your perceptions about nurses in Vietnam or the war in Vietnam?
  2. Why do you think Hannah chose to tell this story?
  3. Why do you think Frankie made the decision to enlist? Do you think you would make the same decision under those circumstances?
  4. What did you think about Frankie’s argument with her father that he glorifies men going off to war, but not women? Why do you think he feels this way? Do you think people still feel this way?
  5. What did you think about Frankie’s relationships with Jamie and Rye? Do you think there was real love there? What do you think this story would sound like from their perspective?
  6. What do you think happens with Jamie after the end of the book?
  7. Who was your favorite character in the book (other than Frankie)? Why and what about them did you find compelling?
  8. What parts of Frankie’s experiences in Vietnam did you find most upsetting? What about as a returning veteran attempting to re-assimilate?
  9. Do you think Frankie is a “hero” and what makes someone a “hero”?
  10. How do you think Frankie’s story would differ if her socioeconomic circumstances were different? If she were poor, if she were a minority or if she didn’t have the support system that she did?

Book Excerpt

Read the first pages of The Women



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