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Bittersweet by Colleen McCullough


Happy Australia Day, everyone.

Like many Australian readers, I am a huge fan of Colleen McCullough’s books. McCullough’s The Ladies of Missalonghi has always been one of my favourite stories, although I believe the book was controversial because of the similarity of the plot to LM Montgomery’s The Blue Castle. I loved Tim, The Thorn Birds and McCullough’s seven Roman books are epic.

Bittersweet was the last book Colleen McCullough wrote before dying in early 2015. She had been suffering from ill health and poor eyesight while writing Bittersweet, which contains faults I suspect she would have removed had she been in better health.

Bittersweet tells the story of two sets of strong-minded twins, Edda and Grace, Tufts and Kitty Latimer, who lived in a large country town in Australia during the 1920’s and 30’s.

The sisters had a difficult relationship with their mother/stepmother (Edda and Grace’s mother died when they were babies, and their father married his housekeeper, who gave birth to Tufts and Kitty). The four women eventually left home to become nurses, one of the only professions available to women at the time. (Colleen McCullough was a neuroscientist herself, so it stands to reason that she had to write a story set in a hospital at some point in her career).

Grace dropped out of the story early to get married and have children, although she resurfaced from time to time to suffer her share of tragedy during the depression years. Tufts also played a smaller part, lacking passion for anything other than her sisters, her career and her friendship with an older doctor.

Kitty was the beautiful one, (isn’t it funny how every family has a ‘pretty’ one, a ‘clever’ one, a ‘funny’ one, or a ‘naughty’ one, and so on? I was the ‘one who liked to read’). Kitty hated being extraordinarily beautiful and desperately wanted to be loved for herself. She married the most important man in town, an English doctor who ran the hospital and was also heir to the richest man in town, but she chafed against his possessive nature. Kitty was also desperate for her children of her own, but found pregnancy elusive. (Being ordinary-looking myself, I find it difficult to feel sorry for anyone whose beauty brings them opportunities).

Edda was the sister who most wanted to be a doctor, but because of the lack of money and limited opportunities, she had to settle for being a nurse. Edda was smart and stylish, took lovers and flouted convention, all the while holding down a respected position at the hospital.

The sister’s bonds with each other were stronger than their marriages and love affairs, and although they fought, disagreed, and knew each other’s weaknesses and failings as well as they knew their own, they always stood up for each other.

I had high expectations on starting this book, but was so disappointed by the first few chapters that I nearly didn’t continue reading. The only reason I did, was because it was by Colleen McCullough. The book could have done with a hard edit. The dialogue was melodramatic and too much of it didn’t ring true. Some descriptions were ridiculous too, for example, Kitty’s eyes constantly changed colour, depending on her temper. If anyone other than a respected author wrote something like that, their book would not get published. Bittersweet didn’t have much of a story either, for all that it is a doorstop of a book, and the last half of the book dragged.

Regardless of my disappointment in Bittersweet, Colleen McCullough was an enormously successful Australian writer whose books are well worth reading.






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