Set in 1890 in New York City, this engaging, well-researched novel is full of unexpected twists and turns. A cast of well-developed characters keeps the reader turning the pages to see what will happen next, all while gaining historical information about the lives of ordinary people of the era. The history of nursing and medicine is especially intriguing, granted maybe a bit more so to me as a licensed RN. It reminds us that even in modern medicine, it comes down to the individuals who provide the care. Empathy and good bedside manners are still essential for good health care.
Lillian is a struggling young woman; she’s the guardian and provider for her 14-year-old brain-damaged sister, Marie. Their father died some years earlier; their mother is referred to as a villainous, unfit person throughout most of the novel. Lillian wants to be a nurse almost more than anything, but in that era nursing school is prohibitive to most, especially someone who’s caring for a handicapped family member.
Lillian manages to find a nurse aid position at a large cancer hospital several blocks from her small apartment. Her cousin and closest friend, Michael, finds a caregiver for Marie. She proves to be dependable as well as creative, and Marie thrives under her care. The only problem is, Marie must accept her as she is—a former prostitute who needs a job. Lillian struggles to accept her, but lessons are in store for her.
The details of hospital work in 1890 are amazing, and the hierarchy of nursing staff and the doctors is almost explosive at times. Lillian is clearly on the bottom rung of the pecking order. As the nurse aid, Lillain must deliver the deceased to the basement when no family claims the body. She’s innately intelligent, and learns all she can from every interaction with patients, nurses, and the doctor. Most of the nurses treat Lillian as if she’s an ignoramus, though over time, they begin to offer her a bit of respect.
This is the author’s second novel. The plot provides surprises, and threading through the novel are fresh looks at bigotry on many levels: race, sexuality, social, and familial. There is a large cast of secondary and supportive characters who add depth to The Sharp Edge of Mercy. It’s the kind of story that stays with a reader long after reading.