A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (February 6, 2015). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.
The questionable healthcare and housing conditions with which Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital confronted wounded veterans of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families, were the subject of countless news stories in 2007. They also serve as the framework for Emily Gray Tedrowe’s novel Blue Stars, which traces the experiences of two very different families brought together at Reed by their wounded soldiers.
It’s 2005, and Ellen Silverman is a literature professor at the University of Wisconsin, the widowed mother of adult children Jane and Wesley and legal guardian of Michael, a high-school friend of Wesley’s. At Jane’s nineteenth-birthday dinner, Michael offhandedly mentions that he’s enlisted in the Marines. Jane is simply furious, while Ellen’s responses to his departure for training and later deployment to Afghanistan are more complicated. When Michael’s foot is nearly blown off and he’s shipped back to Walter Reed, Ellen knows she has to go to him, but she’s unsure of what else is expected of her.
Meanwhile, personal trainer Lacey Diaz is married to an Army-reserve captain, and most of her friends in the Bronx are fellow “mil-wives.” They all know that deployment is likely sooner rather than later, and they’re ready to support the troops and each other. But not long after her husband Eddie ships off to Iraq, Lacey learns the hard way that much of the official support system for military families is sadly inadequate. By the time Eddie winds up at Reed, brain-injured and blinded, Lacey has grown accustomed to advocating and arguing with administrative types, but the hospital presents a new set of challenges.
Tedrowe structures Blue Stars with alternating chapters, taking her time with Ellen and Lacey’s individual experiences until they converge at Walter Reed. At the hospital, these women, so different in background, make a mutually-helpful alliance that advances into the sort of friendship that blooms in shared adversity. Blue Stars is a timely and engrossing novel of the challenges faced, and connections formed, on the home front during wartime.
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Emily Gray Tedrowe has written an extraordinary novel about ordinary people, a graceful and gritty portrayal of what it’s like for the women whose husbands and sons are deployed in Iraq.
BLUE STARS brings to life the realities of the modern day home front: how to get through the daily challenges of motherhood and holding down a job while bearing the stress and uncertainty of war, when everything can change in an instant. It tells the story of Ellen, a Midwestern literature professor, who is drawn into the war when her legal ward Michael enlists as a Marine; and of Lacey, a proud Army wife who struggles to pay the bills and keep things going for her son while her husband is deployed. Ellen and Lacey cope with the fear and stress of a loved one at war while trying to get by in a society that often ignores or misunderstands what war means to women today. When Michael and Eddie are injured in Iraq, Ellen and Lacey’s lives become intertwined in Walter Reed Army Hospital, where each woman must live while caring for her wounded soldier. They form an alliance, and an unlikely friendship, while helping each other survive the dislocated world of the army hospital. Whether that means fighting for proper care for their men, sharing a six-pack, or coping with irrevocable loss, Ellen and Lacey pool their strengths to make it through. In the end, both women are changed, not only by the war and its fallout, but by each other.
From Chapter One:
“Ellen Silverman adjusted the cookbook stand so she could see the page in between bursts of chopping vegetables. Beneath the spattered plastic shield was a new collection of essays about Edith Wharton she was to review. (It had been years since she’d needed to refer to a cookbook.) Each time she scooped a handful of peelings and carried them to the garbage can Maisie, their twelve-year-old golden retriever, lifted her head to assess her chances, dropping it back to her paws when Ellen returned to the counter. Black bean chili sputtered on the stove, a chocolate torte from the bakery was in the fridge, and after the salad was finished all she had to do was set the dining-room table. Her daughter Jane’s nineteenth birthday wasn’t until the end of next week, but since her son Wes would drive back to school tomorrow, they were celebrating tonight. It was good luck that Michael was also free. His motley jobs—snowplow driver, parking-lot security, landscape—made for an unpredictable schedule.”
From Chapter Two:
“Lacey Reed Diaz unzipped her Yankees sweatshirt and laughed. ‘So I just strip, right here? Three o’clock in the freaking afternoon. Totally sober.’
“‘That’s your own fault.’ Martine drank straight from the champagne bottle. ‘Let’s see it, girl.’
“Lacey took a deep breath, dropped the sweatshirt on the floor, and shimmied out of her jeans. ‘I get called a lot of things, but you know—’ T-shirt over her head, she tossed it aside, with a flourish. ‘Prude ain’t one of them.’ She closed her eyes and struck a pose to the cheers of her friends, the snap of the shutter.
“It was called ‘a boudoir photo shoot.’ Somehow the classy French word made it sound more trashy. The upshot was $250 split three ways bought ninety minutes of studio time with one photographer, one ‘set assistant,’ one bottle of cheap champagne, and a handful of six-by-eights plus the hi-res digital files. It had been Mart’s idea, of course. The week their husbands got the official orders—they had all known another deployment was coming—she booked it, using an online coupon to reserve the second-floor studio on Baychester. Lacey said what the hell, and they somehow roped in devout, petite Felicia.”