The Sisters of Summit Avenue, by Lynn Cullen***-****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy, which I received over a year ago. I began reading this story numerous times, but I didn’t find it engaging enough to continue, and so each time I began it, I would end up returning it to my queue in exchange for something I liked. However, I recently began moving through my backlog with assistance from Seattle Bibliocommons, where I was able to get audio versions of those I’d left by the wayside. Ultimately, this is how I was able to follow through, and it’s a good thing, because the last half of this book is far better than the first half.

The story features three women, all of them in the American Midwest in the early 1920s. The sisters are Ruth and June, and their mother is Dorothea. June is the golden one, the prettiest and most successful. Ruth, who is younger, just resents the crap out of June. And she can tell that their mother loves June more.  June, on the other hand, is Betty Crocker; one of them, anyway. One of the few career opportunities open to women involves inventing recipes for Betty; answering Betty’s mail; and playing the part of Betty on the radio. Women visit the company expecting to meet Betty, and thy are outraged to learn that no such person actually exists.

Meanwhile, Ruth and her family remain in the family home with Dorothea, and the sisters are estranged. Their mother hates to see them this way, and she schemes to bring them together.

The narrative shifts between the three women, and from the past to the present. When we are taken back to their youths, we learn what has come between them, and what assumptions, grudges, and secrets each holds that has not been said.

The first half of this book feels like it will never end. The sloppy pop-cultural references grate on me, particularly when the shortcuts result in inaccuracy. For example, when the stock market crashes, Cullen has men jumping from skyscrapers left, right, and center, when in fact, this is mostly myth, or at best, hyperbole. At most there was a single jumper in real life. Historical fiction at its best teaches us in an enjoyable way, but when readers are presented with urban legends as reality, it is a letdown.

By the halfway point, I am only still listening to this book because I have to make dinner anyway, and having put in as much time as I have, I figure I may as well finish it up. My review is on its way to being three stars at best, and possibly two. So imagine my surprise when at the 55% mark, the whole thing wakes up! The female character that has been the least interesting up until now is Dorothea, but now we learn the meaty parts that she has kept secret, and there we find the key to everything else. I am so astonished that my jaw drops, and I stop chopping vegetables and gape at my tablet, which is streaming this story. Oh, heck! Seriously? This is why…? Oh, holy crap. Who knew?

From that point forward, it’s an entirely different ballgame. When I head for the kitchen, I’m already thinking about what I heard the day before, and looking forward to the next bit.

Those that enjoy character-based fiction could do a lot worse, as long as you take the historical parts with a grain of salt. Overall, I recommend that if you read this book, you should get it free or cheap, and prepare to be patient.

The Brother Years, by Shannon Burke*****

The Brother Years is my first book by this author, but I hope it won’t be the last. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now, and if you treasure excellent, character-based fiction, you should get it and read it.

It’s tempting to call this a coming of age story, but the quality of the writing renders it unique and singular, defying categorization. The quiet authority and intimacy with which this story is told within the first person point of view led me to my desktop twice to make certain I was reading fiction, rather than memoir. In addition, I’m a sucker for any story that addresses social class, and class is the flesh and marrow of this tale.

Willie Brennan is the second born into a large family, and almost all of his siblings are boys. His parents are working class strivers, determined to rise, and particularly to help their children rise, through merit and hard work. In order to obtain the best possible education, they move into a substandard rental house in an otherwise upscale community. But social class shapes us, not only in terms of material trappings, but in more subtle ways having to do with culture. For example, when the boys get angry with each other, they are ordered to take it outside. The parents, who work multiple jobs in order to elevate their sons and daughter, are often not available to mediate disputes; moreover, the family is infused with a dog-eat-dog sort of Darwinism, and so sibling on sibling domestic abuse germinates and grows, along with genuine, abiding hatreds for protracted periods of time. This contrasts sharply with the more genteel, nuanced manner that more moneyed families deal with disputes and competition within their families, and between friends. And so, Willie and his older brother Coyle are set apart, not only by their house, family car, and clothing, but by the way they treat their classmates and each other. And we see much of how their classmates and neighbors regard them:

“They knew of our family. Our reputation had grown as we’d gotten older. We were Brennans. We did crazy shit.”

As the story begins, Coyle, the eldest, is the apple of his father’s eye, the achiever in every possible arena. Willie feels the terrible weight of expectation; how does one follow an act like Coyle’s? But in adolescence, Coyle rebels, and nobody knows what to do. Willie, next in line, bears the brunt of his brother’s bottomless rage.

This could be a miserable read in the hands of a less capable writer.  I have seen other writers tell stories of horrifying childhoods, both fictional and autobiographical, that simply made me want to put that book down and walk away. When pleasure reading is devoid of pleasure, what’s the percentage in forcing oneself through to the conclusion?  But Burke is too skillful to let this happen. While there are a number of truly painful passages, the distance projected by the narrator, speaking down the long tunnel between his present adult life and that tortured childhood he recalls, provides me with enough of a buffer that my sorrow for this poor child is eclipsed to a degree by my eagerness to know what will happen next.

This reviewer was also a child of working class parents, and also attended an excellent public school where most of my classmates came from families with money, in some cases a lot of it. No doubt this further fueled my interest. I am riveted when, as a revenge ploy, Willie accepts a friendship overture from Coyle’s nemesis, Robert Dainty, whose family is among the wealthiest and most

 privileged in town. Robert was “the epitome of the New Trier student: competent, self-satisfied, crafty, and entitled.” The interactions that take place within this alliance are fascinating, and I believe them entirely. In fact, I believe every character in this story, from the father, whose judgement and impulse control is dreadful; to the mother, who smolders and tries to make the best of things; to the older brother, classmates, and of course, the protagonist, Willie.

The author—and this reviewer—grew up in the mid-twentieth century, and it was during a time, post-Sputnik, post-World War II, when the United States and its people were passionate advocates of competition and domination. For this reason, I suspect that those from or close to the Boomer generation will appreciate this story most. But it’s hard to pigeonhole writing that meets such a high standard, and everyone that appreciates brilliant fiction, particularly historical fiction, will find something to love here.

Because I was running behind and could tell this galley was one that I shouldn’t let fall by the wayside, I supplemented my usual reading with the audio version I obtained from Seattle Bibliocommons. Toward the end, because it is so impressive, I listened to it and followed along in the galley. George Newbern is the reader, and he does a wonderful job. You can’t go wrong, whether with print or audio.

Highly recommended.