Bittersweet, by Colleen McCullough

Review published on June 24, 2014.Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

It almost goes without saying that Australian author Colleen McCullough is best known for her novel The Thorn Birds. Her new novel, Bittersweet, is ‘as close a sequel to her sweeping work as we will ever have’.

The novel follows the four Latimer sisters, daughters of a Rector in New South Wales. The girls – Edda, Grace, Tufts and Kitty – are two sets of twins, and are ‘as close as can be’. They are famous throughout their native county for ‘their beauty, wit and ambition’. The girls are all ‘determined to conquer a world where they have little opportunity and few rights, and so they seize the single opportunity offered to them: nursing school’.

McCullough has chosen to set her work against the backdrop of the Great Depression. Whilst some interesting questions and moral and social dilemmas are raised throughout, Bittersweet is essentially a character-driven novel. The most interesting element of it was Edda’s longing to become a doctor, and society’s rallying against women to prevent them holding such a responsible profession.

Whilst the novel begins with rather a graphic scene, in which a venomous snake enters the Latimer’s home and is consequently killed by the ‘wonderfully brave’ Edda and Kitty, the landscape of Australia and all that is wonderful about it is overshadowed somewhat by the characters. McCullough places much of her focus upon the way in which the sisters care for and act with one another. The conversation sometimes felt a little matter-of-fact, and many things were needlessly stated in the baldest of manners. The Latimers were not the most realistic of sibling sets, and they felt rather too melodramatic at times – Kitty, for example, tries to hang herself just because her mother thinks she is beautiful, and consequently singles her out from her sisters. Sadly, the execution of Bittersweet is not as good as its promising storyline made it sound.

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