The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell

The Romance Reader’s Guide to Life by Sharon Pywell was such an unexpected delight. Provided to me by NetGalley and the publishers (both of whom I thank for the opportunity to read and review), I confess the rather unusual and slightly formal title didn’t prepare me for the marvellous and very different content.

The novel is essentially two books in one, both of which are framed by the conventions of the world’s most popular genre: romance. The main narrative centres around two sisters: Lilly and Neave Terhune, and it’s primarily their voices that tell their utterly compelling story of growing up and entering the adult world pre and post World War II in small town America. The second narrative, which interweaves Lilly and Neave’s story, is called The Pirate Lover and it uses the usual romance conventions of the stricken heroine, wealthy, dashing and dastardly hero and a terrible villain to tell its tale of love, loss, and triumph over evil.

30319080While The Pirate Lover is a rollicking romance in the grandest sense, played out in Parisian salons and the high seas, what occurs between the characters is echoed meaningfully and with chilling consequences in the sisters’ story. Both narratives also deal with the social expectations of women; how marriage is regarded as an inevitable outcome that should socially elevate them. Independence of thought action and through being financially independent is an outrageous prospect for women yet it’s precisely this that nevertheless, Lilly and Neave embrace. In this regard, both stories, but particularly, Lilly’s and Neave’s, portray a particular slice of cultural history – including, through their brother Synder, pop culture history (and I love the way Pywell plays with the devaluation of that; how it’s discredited as meaningless froth by most) – in really evocative and accurate ways.

Lilly could not be more different to her more forthright and yet romantic sister, Neave. When Neave is still quite young, she is hired by a wealthy woman to read to her daily, and it’s the relationship between the woman and Neave and the stories and books they share (and those they don’t – Neave steals a romance novel), that provide Neave with not only imaginative foundations, but emotional ones as well – which, for better or worse, will guide her throughout life.

In the meantime, Lilly embraces life, refusing to think too deeply about people’s motives or lack thereof or enter into arguments. Lilly is there for the moment; understanding and reflection can, if it does, come later… if not too late.

Establishing a successful business together, proving that women aren’t just ornaments or objects of men’s desires, Neave and Lilly, with their bond that transcends life, use their knowledge and business acumen to empower other women towards autonomy and freedom: social, economic, romantic and sexual.

But it’s the very same ability to forge careers and be single-minded and pragmatic, that also drives them towards men who don’t have their best interests at heart. When Lilly disappears, Neave’s world – real and imagined – collide in ways she never could have foreseen. Deadly danger stalks her and the family she loves and, unless she is able to utilise the help she’s being offered from beyond, then she, and the business she and Lilly worked so hard to build, is doomed.

While the novel draws on romance conventions, it also deconstructs and plays with them, weaving elements of magical realism, fantasy, history, crime and other genres into the tale. The writing is lyrical and lovely and, even if you think you don’t “like” romance” (all books are at heart, romance, even if it’s with the reader), the parallel stories – one very literary, the other more clichéd, draw you in and have you turning the pages.

My one slight issue is I felt the last quarter of the book took the magic realism element a tad too far. While I was happy to go along for the afterlife ride, it reaches a point where it’s difficult to suspend disbelief. Without spoiling the tale, there were elements to certain characters and the focus they were given at the end, which detracted slightly from what should have been their primary purpose – a purpose we’d been led to believe was the reason they still existed (albeit on another plane) in the first place. It strained even the credibility required to accept what was happening (which had been easy up until then).

Nevertheless, this is a tiny gripe about such an original, beautifully written and lovely story with lead characters to whom you lose your heart. Recommended for readers of romance, history, and damn fine books.

 

 

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

This book was given a huge recommendation by a friend who shares similar reading tastes but not even her high praise prepared me for the story that unfolded when I began reading The Nightingale.

24447955Set on the eve of Word War Two in rural France, Paris and other locales, this is fundamentally a tale about two sisters: the gentle, loving and loyal Vianne, who simply wants to get on with the business of living and loving her husband and daughter, and her rebellious, impulsive sister, Isabelle. Fundamentally abandoned – if not rejected – by their father after their mother died and while still young, the two sisters found different ways to ope with their grief and loss. Sadly, they’re unable to find solace in each other; Vianne is frustrated by her sister’s perceived lack of responsibility and selfishness, Isabelle by Vianne’s lack of interest in and feelings for her – it’s as if she’s been rejected by her sister as well.

But it’s also a story about war and what it does to those who are drawn into its tragedy; how it strips some of their humanity, while for others it reminds them of what’s important and why no risk is ever too great to sustain this.

When the rumours of Nazis invading become a reality and the sisters’ very different lives are overturned, Vianne is forced to billet a Nazi officer. Terrified for her daughter, wondering about her husband who has been conscripted to the front, as her beloved village is transformed almost overnight (including some of the villagers) Vianne faces terrible deprivations and loss of heart and soul as she is forced into a series of difficult and dangerous choices simply to survive.

In the meantime, a chance encounter with an earnest young man sees Isabelle risking her life in order to stand up to the Nazi injustices and the destruction these monsters leave in their wake.

What neither Vianne or Isabelle can predict, however, is just how many sacrifices they’ll be asked to make, how many losses they’ll have to endure and how much faith and courage they’ll have to find – not only in each other, but within themselves.

Moving from the late 1980s and the reminiscing of a dying old woman and back to the young woman and the war tearing the world apart, this heart-wrenching, beautiful and brave story of women and men who resist the lure of evil, who stand up for what is right is remarkable. Taking its time, the novel draws you into the lives of the sisters, their family and neighbours. With gorgeous prose, meaningful reflections and such truth in the complex familial relationships portrayed, even when what’s being revealed is painful or unflattering, you come to understand the characters and their motives. Because the novel is set against a backdrop we know so well, the reader is privy to what the characters don’t know – the heartless onslaught of Hitler, the Gestapo and Nazis, the horror of the Concentration camps, and the chaos and utter heartache that await them all. How hope is so hard to cling to, but cling they must. This knowledge creates a particular frisson as you read, making the narrative even more powerful than it already is.

Hauntingly tragic yet also so very beautiful, this is a story that lingered in my heart and mind for days afterwards. A simply wonderful book that I cannot recommend highly enough whether you’re a lover of history, fine fiction, a tremendous tale or whether you long to hear the voices of those so often rendered silent.

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Book Review: Lighthouse Bay, Kimberley Freeman

When you pick up a Kimberley Freeman novel, there’s a sense in which you know what you’re getting: a wonderful few hours in which to lose yourself in a marvellous time and space, where there’s romance, secrets, mystery, broken hearts and souls and the tools for characters to mend these if they so desire. Her books are like the best comfort food there is.

Lighthouse Bay, a tale that takes place in two different time frames and explores the lives of three very different women who are connected by the vagaries of life, men, and place, is no exception. It is a gorgeously woven and cleverly plotted tale of loss, desire, memory and its power to render an individual static, and the incredible might of forgiveness to facilitate change, especially, self-forgiveness.

It commences with a shipwreck in 1901, when commissioned with making and transporting a gloriously jewelled parliamentary mace to Australia for Federation, the callous, unemotional and aristocratic Arthur Winterbourne, insists his wife, the grieving Isabella, accompany him. When the vessel they’re on is shipwrecked on the north-east coast of Queensland, not too far from the Sunshine Coast, and Isabella is the only survivor, not only must she brave the natural elements to survive, but human ones and the memories of her tragic past as well.

Switch to current times, and we’re introduced to the Libby Slater, a web designer living in Paris who, having lost the love of her life, decides to return to the place of her birth, the imagined Lighthouse Bay, to grieve, recollect herself and, possibly, face some dreadful demons – including her estranged sister, Juliet, who cannot forgive her sister for the terrible thing she did twenty years earlier.

Segueing between the different stories, and the woman at their heart, an evocative tale of self-discovery and reconciliation emerges. As each woman learns to put the past and those who populated it into perspective, they’re able to move forward. But it’s the choices they make in their present that will shape their futures and with an uncanny knack for poor choices, for repeating mistakes, you wonder if these woman have learned anything at all…

I found myself unable to put this book down and stayed up far too late to finish it. While there’s romance in these books, it’s very much a story about women – about their capacity to be good, strong people, who make choices they have to live with: as mothers, sisters, friends and citizens. It’s about having them acknowledge their weaknesses and moving with and beyond them to create possibility – for themselves and those around them who dare to care. I really enjoyed this aspect and found myself caring so deeply about each of the women, and having a weep at the beauty and realism the relationships, good and bad, evoked.

An absolutely wonderful read.

 

 

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