42 pages 1 hour read

Kristin Hannah

The Women: A Novel

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2024

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Women by Kristin Hannah follows Frances “Frankie” McGrath, a young nurse who serves during the American conflict in Vietnam in the late 1960s. Raised in privilege, 20-year-old Frankie is eager to find purpose and quickly grows from a naïve woman to a skilled Operating Room (OR) nurse. However, the horrors of war make acclimation to civilian life challenging. Through Frankie, Hannah hopes to elucidate the lesser-known women of the Vietnam War.

Kristin Hannah is a former attorney and author of 20 novels, which tend to focus on women in American society. Hannah’s novels have appeared on several best-seller lists—including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and Publisher’s Weekly. The Nightingale (2015) was named the best book of 2015 by Amazon, The Wall Street Journal, and Buzzfeed, among others. A television adaptation was made of Hannah’s Firefly Lane (published in 2008; premiered in 2021), and The Nightingale and The Great Alone (published in 2018) have been considered for film adaptations.

This guide refers to the 2024 hardcover edition by St. Martin’s Press.

Content Warning: This guide references the source text’s depiction of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), pregnancy loss, child loss, alcohol and substance misuse, and attempted death by suicide.

Plot Summary

Twenty-year-old Frances “Frankie” McGrath attends a party in honor of her brother Finley’s graduation from Naval Academy at their parents’ house in Coronado, California. Finley will soon serve in the Vietnam War. During the party, Frankie studies photographs of ancestors who served in combat—a display she calls the “heroes’ wall.” She is joined by Finley’s friend, Rye Walsh, who suggests she could become a hero herself one day. With this in mind, she finishes college, earns a nursing degree, and works at a local hospital, but is only given menial tasks. Thinking of Rye’s words, Frankie enlists in the army as a nurse, planning to join Finley in Vietnam. Her parents are shocked by her plan and try to convince her to change her mind. They then learn Finley was killed in action, and that his body could not be recovered. Arriving in Saigon, Frankie is thrown into work as mass casualties arrive. She struggles to keep up, but fellow nurses and roommates Ethel and Barbara (Barb) help. She is then placed in the neuro ward for the night shift, which is quiet. Over weeks, Frankie grows close to Ethel and Barb, and they spend their free time relaxing or dancing. Surgeon Jamie Callahan shows interest in her, but she loses interest upon learning he is married. Yet, when he begs her to transfer to the OR, she does.

In the OR, Frankie becomes a seasoned nurse; she also begins drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. When Jamie leaves Saigon, his helicopter is shot and he is brought to the OR. He suffers cardiac arrest and is transported to another facility, but Frankie assumes he will not survive. She is eventually promoted and transferred to the 71st Evacuation Unit, a mobile unit closer to the Cambodian border; Barb asks to be transferred with her. The women face mass casualties nearly every day, and during their free time, enjoy parties with helicopter pilots. One day, a pilot introduces Frankie to his captain, and she is surprised to find it is Rye. She feels a connection but keeps her distance upon learning he is engaged.

Barb leaves Saigon, and Frankie exchanges letters with her mother and Ethel. She grows frustrated with her patients’ high mortality rate and the media’s framing of the war. Thus, she is sent to Hawaii for six days to recuperate. There, Frankie finds Rye, who claims he ended his engagement—allowing them to begin a relationship. Back at the Cambodian border, Frankie is informed of the end of her tour. Rye’s tour will end 27 days after hers, and they plan to remain together in California. She decides to surprise her parents with her arrival—but upon landing in Los Angeles, she is shocked by anti-war protests. Frankie is spit on by a protestor, and cannot convince taxis to pick her up while in uniform. Her parents are startled to see her and refuse to ask about her two years in Vietnam.

Frankie’s mother tries to make her a socialite, but she is uncomfortable. She finds herself anxious, her sleep filled with nightmares of Vietnam. She calls Barb often and counts down the days until Rye’s return. Frankie obtains a nursing job but is only given menial tasks. Barb suggests she plan a welcome party for Rye. However, when she contacts Rye’s father, she learns he was killed in action. Frankie sinks into depression. One night shift at the hospital, she saves a life by breaking protocol and is fired. She later flies into a drunken rage, yelling at her father for his shame over her service. Frankie leaves the house and crashes her car. She calls Barb, who, along with Ethel, travels to California to retrieve her and bring her to Ethel’s horse farm in Virginia.

Frankie and Barb live in Ethel’s house, while Ethel attends veterinary school. Barb, whose brother was killed in a riot, is active in anti-war protests, while Frankie works toward becoming an operating room nurse. Barb convinces her to attend a veterans’ march in Washington DC. There, she meets a psychiatrist. They strike up a conversation, and he probes into Frankie’s well-being; they separate without her learning his name. Later, Frankie’s mother suffers a stroke, and she rushes home. As her mother recovers, Frankie and her father reconcile. He gifts her a cottage, and she takes a position as a surgical nurse. When she learns of an organization committed to releasing prisoners of war (POWs), she agrees to help by writing letters—which becomes a passion.

When Frankie runs into the DC psychiatrist again, Henry Acevedo, they start a relationship—though he is still grieving the loss of his wife to cancer and Frankie still loves Rye. She becomes pregnant, and the couple plan a small wedding. The war finally ends, and American POWs are released and televised. Frankie watches this broadcast and is stunned to see Rye among the POWs. She, Ethel, and Barb head to the airport to greet the POWs arriving in San Diego. Frankie shouts to Rye, but he runs to another woman with a child. She realizes he lied to her about his “engagement,” that he is married. She develops depression, experiences pregnancy loss, and breaks off her engagement to Henry.

Frankie’s mother gives her sleeping pills (later revealed to be Valium), and Frankie becomes reliant on them. One day, she spots Rye’s family at the beach and follows them home. Rye sees and later visits her. He claims he got married before arriving in Vietnam, and regretted it. He plans to get divorced, so Frankie agrees to an affair. However, she is plagued with guilt and consumes more Valium. When this substance misuse begins to affect her job, she is suspended. When Frankie learns Rye’s wife is pregnant, she realizes he will never keep his promise. One night, while under the influence of substances and alcohol, she wades into the ocean, certain she hears Finley. She wakes in a psychiatric ward and is then transferred to a rehabilitation facility run by Henry—who explains she is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Months later, Frankie returns to her cottage but then decides she needs to be away from her hometown to heal. She sells the cottage and moves to Montana, where she buys a ranch and pursues a psychology degree. By the 1980s, her ranch has become a haven for women who served in Vietnam. In 1982, Frankie attends the reunion of the 36th Evacuation Unit to commemorate the Vietnam Veterans memorial in DC. There, she runs into surgeon Jamie, who survived his injuries from Vietnam.

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