I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team and thank her and the author for the ARC copy of the book, which I freely chose to review.
This is the second book by this author I read, and it shares many of the characteristics of the previous one (a great setting, a love story at the centre of the book, a sense of time and place, great characters, both protagonists and secondary, wonderful writing…).
Here we have two characters that seem total opposites at first sight. Meryn, Ryn, a young woman, openly lesbian, newly qualified to teach history, from a large family, gregarious and friendly, dynamic, with strong convictions, and happy to stir things up. Henrietta, on the other hand, contracted polio in the 1940s and has lived with its sequelae ever since, leading a reclusive life, restricted to a small town, with a tiny circle of friends (mostly not deserving of the name), dedicated to her art, and dependant for her everyday life on paid help and living-in companions. Although the book starts in the 1980s, in many ways Henrietta still lives in the fifties. Due to the braces she wears and to her level of disability she has built up a protective shell around herself, and she’s never dared to change anything or explore beyond her self-imposed boundaries.
The story is narrated in the third person, alternating the two main characters’ points of view, and this works very well, as we have the contrast between a total newcomer who finds it difficult to fit into the stuffy and stifling society of the small town and of the Catholic college (where men reign supreme and misbehave without anybody taking them to task) where she works, and an older woman who might not like her lifestyle and those she mixes with if she stops to think about it, but cannot imagine a different life for herself. She fears the pity of others and has never allowed herself to love, after an experience she had as an adolescent prior to her illness. The girl disappeared, and she never heard from her again. That coupled with her conviction that nobody could look at her and feel anything but pity means that she is closed off and does not let anybody in, in case they hurt her.
The author creates two complex characters we get to empathise with and sets them in a recent historical period, but like the best historical fiction, the novel highlights how much some things have changed since, and also how little other things have truly changed. The gender politics at the college are appalling but not miles away from what still exists today in some places; the prejudice might be less open but is still present (and it takes many forms here: gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, political beliefs…); and as the epilogue reminds us, the parallels with the current political situation (Reagan was in power at the time the story starts and the Democrats lost their campaign, and the book closes after the 2016 election with Trump’s victory) are evident.
Above all that, the novel talks about love: about different kinds of love (religious love, family love, friendship, romantic love…), about acceptance and tolerance of diversity, about letting others in and learning to look with new eyes at ourselves and those around us. Although there are some truly appalling characters, Ryn and Henrietta manage to find a community of friends who make them feel welcome and accept them for who they are. Henrietta’s love for art and painting, and Ryn’s enthusiasm for history and women’s history in particular, their passion and creativity, make them more alike than they realise at first, and although their story is not without complications, and there are sad as well as joyful moments, this is ultimately an inspiring and beautiful read.
This is a novel that explores issues of identity, prejudice, diversity, different definitions of love, and what life (and love) is like for a person with a disability and for those around her. I enjoyed becoming a part of the story and, as was the case with the previous novel by Werlinger, I was sorry to get to the end, and I hope to read more of her stories. Recommended to readers who are looking for LGTB and diverse romances or simply enjoy beautifully written stories that will make them think.