Bittersweet by Colleen McCullough

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Bittersweet by Colleen McCullough

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Susmita Chatto
Reviewed by Susmita Chatto
Summary: The Latimer sisters are leaving home and they can’t wait. But as the Depression hits Australia and the whole world faces unprecedented change, will life only ever bring them bittersweet compromise?
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 441 Date: February 2014
Publisher: Head of Zeus
ISBN: 978-1781855874

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Kitty, Edda, Grace and Tufts are looking forward to leaving home and training as nurses. It’s a far cry from their comfortable upbringing. But that upbringing contained a good deal of family tension, so they are all looking forward to the freedom and opportunities a new life will bring.

I have read a number of Colleen McCullough’s novels and found them all hugely enjoyable. They were gripping, escapist reads with great character depth, which can be revisited again and again. I was really looking forward to reading this one and I’m conscious that high expectations can sometimes colour your experience of a book, so I have kept this in mind while reading the book and writing this review.

This book is immediately engaging and I thought I was in for a treat. The key characteristics of each girl are demonstrated with one small but clever incident. The cloying background in which they were raised, their relationships with one another, and the problems which plagued them throughout childhood are convincingly portrayed.

Unfortunately, from this impressive beginning, the book quickly switches to the pattern that dominates the book overall; I found it very inconsistent. Parts of it are beautifully observed, but at the start, those observations are buried in lengthy and uninspired descriptions of nursing and hospitals. If these descriptions brought something to the storyline, that would be different, but I felt that they were just hammering home the length of the experience of nursing training in a clumsy way that made me long for the section to be over.

Also, due in part to these long explorations, other incidents which should have been major were reduced to a lower level of importance. The times when I needed to know more about a situation, it was not further explored and it left me feeling that some parts of the story didn’t make sense. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone, so I will simply say that the two most surprising things about the personal lives of the girls happened so quickly, I found myself flipping back a few pages to check I had not missed anything. (I hadn’t).

As the book progressed, this became a pattern; situations and environments which needed little explanation were explored at length, while my knowledge of the characters was never deepened. I felt the characters were cheated out of being three dimensional; we were asked to accept statements about them with minimal illustration. I could certainly picture the facts of their physical appearance, but other than that, not enough was demonstrated about them, making them appear shallow.

The peripheral characters barely left any impression at all and when some characters crossed into the main story, it was hard to believe in their relationships with the girls as what was on the page didn’t seem to have any corresponding logic with the decisions that were being made.

The exposition is also awkward; there are sections where McCullough has simply popped in large chunks of back story, and while I have read novels where that technique has worked, somehow it didn’t fit here. I suspect that this was partly due to having to keep an eye on four characters in the same time periods, and partly also due to the long descriptions of nursing and hospitals having left me a bit “fatigued” in the reading sense.

Having worked so hard to explain the back story of the characters, the story, going forward, was not told in the same sensitive way. “Telling” rather than “showing” became the mainstay; there is a balance to be struck with those two things, and McCullough is wide of the mark here.

By the time I was half way through the book, I was concerned about ploughing through the rest of it and it did feel like hard work. It would have been possible to care more for the characters with more understanding of them, but that was not enabled with the style used.

The strengths of the book lie mostly in the fact that the sisters are looking for some independence and there are some moments when their courage in following unconventional paths is laudable. Additionally, there are a number of interesting observations about the Great Depression and the impact in Australia, but overall I found the book seemed quite unpolished and lacking in natural flow, which made it hard to read.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

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Buy Bittersweet by Colleen McCullough at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Bittersweet by Colleen McCullough at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Bittersweet by Colleen McCullough at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Bittersweet by Colleen McCullough at


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