Author: Colleen McCullough
No. of Pages: 384
Genre: Historical Fiction
Origins: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: 19 August 2014
Bottom Line: Just okay
“Because they are two sets of twins, the four Latimer sisters are as close as can be. Yet these vivacious young women each have their own dreams for themselves: Edda wants to be a doctor, Tufts wants to organize everything, Grace won’t be told what to do, and Kitty wishes to be known for something other than her beauty. They are famous throughout New South Wales for their beauty, wit, and ambition, but as they step into womanhood, they are not enthusiastic about the limited prospects life holds for them.
Together they decide to enroll in a training program for nurses—a new option for women of their time, who have previously been largely limited to the role of wives, and preferably mothers. As the Latimer sisters become immersed in hospital life and the demands of their training, they meet people and encounter challenges that spark new maturity and independence. They meet men from all walks of life—local farmers, their professional colleagues, and even men with national roles and reputations—and each sister must make weighty decisions about what she values most. The results are sometimes happy, sometimes heartbreaking, but always . . . bittersweet.
Rendered with McCullough’s trademark historical accuracy, this dramatic coming of age tale is wise in the ways of the human heart, one that will transport readers to a time in history that feels at once exotic and yet not so very distant from our own.”
Thoughts: Everything about the girls is unique, and there is as much time spent discussing the girls’ differences as there is discussing anything else about the story. Similarly, there is an immense emphasis on their sisterly bonds precluding any other relationships they form. While this is a key theme of the story, its continual inclusion into the narrative becomes repetitive. Readers are in no doubt that Edda, Grace, Tufts, and Kitty are four modern girls struggling to break through the chains of tradition as established by the government and society in general so the constant mention of this fact lessens the intensity of their story.
The girls’ battles for emancipation are by far the most intriguing aspect of the novel. Their stories unfold individually, allowing readers the chance to get to know them and see their development. Their individual challenges are as unique as their personalities, and it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience to see each one battle walls of bigotry and sexism and find a place for her while staying true to her ideals. If one were to devote some time and effort to it, one could predict just how their lives will unfold and to whom each sister will end up marrying. However, to do so removes the fun of reading the story. It may be predictable and comfortable, but there is an enjoyment to be found in that comfort that disappears when one spends too much time making predictions.
Bittersweet is not just about two sets of twins in a rural southern Australian town. The setting of the novel means that the girls will face the full throes of the Great Depression. As such, there is much discussion of Depression-era Australian politics within the story. While this does bring a richness of history to the overall story, it can be a struggle to make sense of the dynamics such political battles involve if one is not already familiar with the country’s history. Ms. McCullough does her best to explain the dynamics to help those readers understand the power struggles and their meaning for Australia as a country, but it does mean there are many pages devoted to such explanations. Every time the story veers into a political explanation or discussion, the story moves away from the girls directly and thereby loses some of its sparkle.
One can boil down the overall theme of Bittersweet to the following: life is never going to follow the path you may want or expect it to take, but things will always work out for the best. In the case of Ms. McCullough’s novel, it takes almost 400 pages to reach this conclusion. In such a scenario, one hopes that the journey of discovery to the conclusion is both insightful and entertaining. In many ways, it is not. Those hoping for another sweeping romance-drama similar to Ms. McCullough’s famous The Thorn Birds will find themselves highly disappointed at the much smaller scope and narrow focus of Bittersweet.