Oh dear, what do I know about the Crimean War? Somehow this time and place was totally lost in my history classes, because I had to look up where, exactly, the Crimean Peninsula was located! (Answer: It sticks out into the Black Sea from the bottom of Ukraine. Now you know.)
It’s 1853/1854, and the Crimean War is just getting started. It’s the first war where news can travel by telegram, but it’s also one of the first coalition engagements (England, France, Sardinia, the Duchy of Nassau, and the Ottoman Empire versus Russia), which prompted obviously problems because the Brits hate the French, and everyone else, really.
So we’re in London in 1854, and young Mariella is a well-adjusted, genteel, and well-off chickie. (Ha! Like any teenage girl is well-adjusted…) Her fiance/cousin Henry (this is 1854, remember) goes off to reconnoiter the medical situation in the Crimea; his skills as a doctor and surgeon are highly respected.
Mariella’s best friend (and other cousin) Rosa is a passionate, not-well-adjusted, not-well-off firecracker. She’s passionate about contributing to society, but is a bit unclear about the best way to do that. She’s obsessed with all things medical, and uses her friendship with Mariella to access both her fiance and his hospital.
Rosa eventually goes traipsing off after Florence Nightengale (never actually seen in the book but often mentioned) to nurse the wounded soldiers back to health. One can’t help but think that the girl is overly romantic, with unrealistic ideals of nursing. She doesn’t seem all that in to changing festering bandages, but is more interesting in gazing longingly into a hero’s eyes as he dies in her arms.
All goes well for a while, until Mariella recieves a letter from Henry that he’s in Italy, and is quite ill. Uncharacteristically, but with stereotypical British pluck, Mariella hies off to find him. Once there, she discovers that Henry is really in love with Rosa, or thinks he is, since he’s in the midst of a fever and babbling.
Oh dear, now what is our fair maiden to do? There’s nothing for it but to pack off and head to the Crimean War to find Rosa and ask her what’s what. Yes, young, innocent, tender and naive — Mariella heads off into a war zone. I wish I could say that I respected her decision, but the whole time I was thinking “darn it, a bullet hole would totally ruin the beautiful affect of her silk taffeta sun bonnet” …
I don’t want to give away the ending — so I won’t continue with the plot. But I will say that although there were times when the writing was quite good, the story felt contrived, the characters one-dimensional (except for when Mariella was “growing up” — that part was shoved down my throat!), and the ending completely unsatisfactory.
Let me explain. The whole point of the book is the search: the search for self, the search for love, the search for a silly cousin lost on the battlefield. So when the last pages of the book finally arrive, and the search is over, it’s not going to be as good as you expect. The build up was too great — no reality can compare with what we’ve already imagined! And so the ending in the book comes crashing down around us.
I would recommend this book with reservations. I enjoyed the writing, I enjoyed the characters (mostly), and I enjoyed learning about the Crimean War and the Siege of Sebastopol. And since I breezed through it fairly quickly, you’ll probably feel better that you haven’t wasted a ton of time after you throw the book across the room in frustration once you’ve finished.