Seems like books about orphans are a “thing” lately. Well, I can only think of Orphan Train, which I read last year, and of course the main character in A Little Life, also read last year…but I digress already. This orphan is a Jewish girl in a New York City Jewish orphanage system in the 1920’s and onward, placed there with her brother after her father accidentally murders her mother and takes off for the road. Early in her life, Rachel Rabinowitz and her other infant ilk in the Hebrew Infant Home are subjected to terrible medical experiments by physicians attempting to advance medical science. For Rachel, the worst of it comes when she’s given the label #8 by Dr. Mildred Solomon, a woman in a man’s field trying to pioneer radiological studies. The two meet again years later in the 50’s when Rachel, now a nurse at the Old Hebrews Home, gets a new, dying patient to care for in the hospice wing.
The chapters alternate back and forth between Rachel’s younger years and adult Rachel’s reckoning with what has been done to her. The chapters shift in voice between first and third person, which while easily signalling the different time frames, I found to get a little annoying as the book went on. I really wanted to like this book more than I did. There are many subplots that don’t satisfactorily flesh out. Characters and people that come and go, especially in the past as young Rachel comes of age, without being fully fleshed out or just falling by the wayside. In addition, the silly, manufactured mystery of “her” and “she”…Rachel’s significant other who is away for most of the novel but never named until the end in a plot twist telegraphed so inelegantly early on…wore out its welcome.
This work of historical fiction is not terrible, and there are some great and horrific scenes early on as we learn about these medical experiments, as well as in the interactions between adult Rachel and a dying Dr. Solomon. But so much of the book feels disjointed and strung together with interesting historical tidbits that don’t add up to a totally satisfying story.