bittersweet book coverReviewed by Colleen Turner

Bittersweet revolves around the lives and loves of the four Latimer sisters, two sets of twin half-sisters who are as close as sisters can be while also having very different personalities: Edda, the oldest, is the absolutely brilliant protector of the group that longs to become a doctor, something not many women are able to accomplish in Australia in the 1920s and 1930s when the novel takes place; Grace, Edda’s twin, longs for marriage and a life of comfort being taken care of by a husband; Tufts, the most down to earth and practical twin, is determined to make her own career and never lose herself to marriage; and Tuft’s twin, Kitty, the sharp-tongued, strikingly beautiful sister, wants nothing more than to be loved and appreciated for something other than her looks. All four sisters grow up together in New South Wales and will enroll in a revolutionary new training program for nurses, but each will find a path very different from the others. Each will have successes, whether professionally or personally, and each will face heartbreaking losses that threaten to break them. But at the end of the day each will have the others for support and will learn to find their own happiness, even when it is a bittersweet one.

I have to admit that I have never read Ms. McCullough’s bestselling novel The Thorn Birds although I do own a number of copies of it. Having read such rave reviews about that earlier book I was exciting to pick up this novel, hailed as her first romantic saga to come out since The Thorn Birds was published in 1977. While I can’t say that I found this novel to be what I would call a romance novel – which is fine by me since I’m not a huge fan of overly dramatic romance storylines – I found it immensely enjoyable.

Each of the Latimer sisters brings something to the table and is unique and multifaceted. None of them are perfect and I found myself wanting to hug them and shout at them in turn, but they are all very realistic given the time period and each is admirable in her own way. I honestly felt sympathy for each woman as she experienced her own personal hardships and was happy to see them strive for what they wanted most in the world. I found them to all be very spunky and determined in their own way and was very impressed with how well drawn each one was: each one felt like a real, flesh and blood woman looking for their dreams in a world that is as imperfect as they are.

While each woman experiences some form of emotional attachment to at least one man none, with the exception of maybe Grace, fully succumbs to that romantic ideal of giving everything up for love. I was slightly nervous at the beginning that the women would sacrifice who they were for the men in their lives but I am happy to say that didn’t happen. This is not a mushy, fairy tale story but one of grit and drive that happens to have some more tender moments mixed in.

Another unexpected aspect that I enjoyed was the discussion of the political and economic background of Australia during this time. Much of it takes place right before and during the Great Depression and knowing very little about Australian history I was unaware just how affected they were by what they initially thought of as an American problem. This, along with the continued strained feelings towards the British, was all very new to me. While this aspect of the novel can be somewhat dry at times it really helped me better understand the personalities and actions of the characters that otherwise would have seemed somewhat odd.

Now that I am done reading Bittersweet I long to read more about the turbulent history of Australia as well as more from this prolific writer. I would recommend this to a wide variety of readers – those that enjoy history, women’s studies as well as well written general fiction – but I would caution those looking for a heavy romantic plotline that they might not find what they are looking for between these pages.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Colleen lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband, son, their dog Oliver and their fish Finn. When not working or taking care of her family she has her nose stuck in a book (and, let’s face it, often when she is working or taking care of her family as well). Nothing excites her more than discovering a new author to obsess over or a hidden jewel of a book to worship.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Simon & Schuster. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.