Romance Specialist Haylee Nash has her first taste of Colleen McCullough in Bittersweet…and finds herself going back for more.
I must confess something – prior to Bittersweet, I had never read a Colleen McCullough (I know, I know, take away my romance specialist badge). So when the review copy for Bittersweet landed on my desk, I approached the book with an equal mix of excitement and trepidation. I had heard Colleen is a master, and that her latest book was a kind of sequel to the much-loved Thornbirds, so while I was looking forward to my first time with Colleen, I was worried (as many first-timers are) that the experience might not live up to the hype. And, if I’m honest, I was put off by the sheer size of the book – romance novels, you must understand, are often rather short, so I fretted for my poor depleted attention span.
Regarding the latter, I needn’t have worried – Bittersweet is utterly engaging. In the Latimer sisters, McCullough has created four very unique, complex and loveable characters that the reader delights in following through the pleasures and pitfalls of their lives during the 1920s. She has also written a brilliant supporting cast, who are at times gifted with a scene or chapter told through their eyes, who add depth to this gorgeous historical saga.
In the opening scene of Bittersweet, we meet the two sets of twin sisters, Edda and Grace, (twins from the Reverend Latimer’s first marriage) and Tufts and Kitty (twins from his second marriage to the sour, grasping Maude), sitting meekly in the rectory’s drawing room while their mother/step-mother entertains the best of Corunda’s matrons, celebrating the commencement of the girls’ nursing training. In the midst of this sedate scene, Edda, the smartest and most strong-willed of the sisters, spies a snake which she quickly takes care of, driving the leg of her chair through the head of it. The reactions of the four sisters to this seemingly inconsequential event serves to establish their personalities – Edda takes charge, relishing in the danger and excitement, Grace, frightened, bursts into tears, Kitty calmly take a tomahawk from the hearth and severs the snake in two and Tufts berates Edda and Kitty for acting so rashly. The scene also sets the, at times disconcerting, pace for the book – a quiet, beautifully described scene that both enchants and lulls the reader, interrupted by an abrupt and unforeseen action.
As I have not read any of McCullough’s backlist, I cannot comment on whether this is the author’s iconic style, but it is one she is true to throughout the novel. Beginning with the trials of the four girls’ nursing training and ending in the realisation of long-hoped for dreams for two, a happy marriage for one and a proud widowhood for another, Bittersweet takes the reader through the turbulent twenties, taking great care to explain the social and political climate of Corunda and Australia as a whole and the development of the sisters who undergo subtle yet irreversible change in prose that is at once plain, and elegant. While there is a great depth of information and description, McCullough’s wry humour and gift for observation keep the reader interested, as do the dramatic, and often unexpected, events that befall the sisters, such as marriage, miscarriage, death and (less unexpected) economic depression.
Bittersweet is Australian saga at its best, incorporating history, drama and romance in a beautiful and compulsively readable story about four very different sisters who are united in their fierce love for one another and in their quest achieve happiness, in all its varying forms. My fear of being disappointed turned out to be completely unfounded – Bittersweet is an accomplished piece of historical fiction, and I look forward to delving into Colleen’s backlist.
Haylee Nash loves all things romance, however she has noticed this has caused not only a shortening of her attention span but, perhaps more worryingly, disinterest for anything that does not contain a hot man, sassy woman and sizzling sexual tension. This makes keeping up with current events and politics rather difficult. Haylee Nash is the romance specialist at Booktopia.