Bittersweet, by Colleen McCullough ***-****

bittersweetIf you’re looking for a light beach read to keep you company during what remains of summer, you could do worse than this frilly piece of historical fiction by Colleen McCullough.

You could also do better.

The story follows the lives of four sisters, two sets of twins who share the same father but have different mothers, one of whom is deceased. It takes them from their teens into their adult lives, skimming the surface of each without fully developing any of them.

At first I thought perhaps I was too harsh in my judgment; after all, McCullough wrote The Thornbirds, and not every book can be that strong. But consistently throughout the story she tells us what each woman is thinking, repeatedly tells us in what ways they are different, and because she does this with narrative rather than showing us these things through the story, it renders the whole effort slightly clunky. There are small changes in the way each of them regards the world, so each is slightly dynamic. Yet the thing that was missing for me was that connection that makes me want to talk to a character, or that makes me care deeply about how their story ends. In really good fiction—and my blog has plenty of examples, including love stories—the protagonist becomes so real that they are nearly tangible. I find myself daydreaming about what the character would think of this thing or that. It didn’t happen here.

Still, at bedtime I found myself reaching for this book rather than the others I am reading. It’s good mind candy when you don’t want to think too hard. It’s linear in the telling so there aren’t a lot of changes to keep straight.

Unconscionable, especially for historical fiction where the setting is primarily a background and the story devolves so heavily upon its fictional characters, is the use of the term “tar brush” to suggest that one of the sisters may have African ancestry somewhere in her genes. To bring out a term like that, there had better be a really strong reason related to the plot calling for such a nasty term, however common among white folk during this period, and McCullough doesn’t have one.

Bright spots are the early development of Charles Burnham, and the way Edda’s situation is resolved.

Read it for free or for cheap, but don’t spring for a hard copy.

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