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21 October 2013

Colleen McCullough: Bittersweet

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Enjoyable family saga
The four Latimer sisters had always been close even though they were 2 sets of twins from different mothers. Edda and Grace lost their mother in childbirth and after a very short time their father, Rector of St Mark's Church of England, Corunda, NSW, married his (unpleasant and dominating) housekeeper, Maude and within 2 years there was another set of twins, Tufts and Kitty in the household. At the beginning of the book the four sisters are about to set out independently in life for the first time and become the first registered nurse trainees at the local hospital.

While they cherish their independent lives, at first things are pretty harsh with a very strict Matron and a wealthy hospital run by a skinflint Superintendent. While they survive by helping one another, each girl has their own battles to fight which quickly sorts out the differences between the girls and their ambitions. Things change when Dr. Charles Burdum, a very rich English relation of one of the district's wealthiest graziers, takes over as Superintendent and shakes up the hospital and its staff. After an upper class English upbringing, Charles' adjustment to life in Australia as 'Charlie the Pommy' is very amusing.

Each sister makes their own very different decisions about their future careers and partners. Kitty, who has been spoiled and pampered by her mother, is the first one to meet Charles on a train from Melbourne when he invades the privacy of her railway compartment. Despite her first greeting - "Piss off you presumptuous little twerp" - Charles believes that someone with Kitty's beauty would make him a perfect wife.

The story covers the start of the Great Depression that affects everyone in different ways and to different degrees. While each of the sisters face their own challenges and sufferings, the bond between them never falters. They conclude that "Nothing is so sweet that there's no tinge of bitter in it."

It has been a while since I have read any books by prolific writer Colleen McCullough, mainly because I was distracted by her scholarly but IMHO difficult and uninspiring "Masters of Rome" series. McCullough is still a great storyteller, especially of family sagas.  While I found the character of Charles a bit over the top and unbelievable, overall I enjoyed and can recommend "Bittersweet". It is not clear if there will be a sequel but the ending seemed to leave scope for visiting the lives of the sisters later on in their lives.

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