Review: The Sisters of Summit Avenue by Lynn Cullen

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☆☆➹⁀☆ 4 stars ☆➹⁀☆☆

What It’s About:

Ruth has been single-handedly raising four young daughters and running her family’s Indiana farm for eight long years, ever since her husband, John, fell into a comatose state, infected by the infamous “sleeping sickness” devastating families across the country. If only she could trade places with her older sister, June, who is the envy of everyone she meets: blonde and beautiful, married to a wealthy doctor, living in a mansion in St. Paul. And June has a coveted job, too, as one of “the Bettys,” the perky recipe developers who populate General Mills’ famous Betty Crocker test kitchens. But these gilded trappings hide sorrows: she has borne no children. And the man she used to love more than anything belongs to Ruth.

When the two sisters reluctantly reunite after a long estrangement, June’s bitterness about her sister’s betrayal sets into motion a confrontation that’s been years in the making. And their mother, Dorothy, who’s brought the two of them together, has her own dark secrets, which might blow up the fragile peace she hopes to restore between her daughters.

An emotional journey of redemption, inner strength, and the ties that bind families together, for better or worse, The Sisters of Summit Avenue is a heartfelt love letter to mothers, daughters, and sisters everywhere.

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My Thoughts:

The Sisters of Summit Avenue is a depression-era historical fiction and family drama.  Author Lynn Cullen has clearly researched the era in which The Sisters of Summit Avenue is set.  From the hungry and homeless, the struggling-to-survive working class, to farmers who just manage to hold onto their farms, readers get a very realistic view of American life in the 1930s.  Additionally, Ms. Cullen has included the all too real, but little known, epidemic of Encephalitis Lethargica.  While not the main focus on the book, the illness does contribute to the exploration of relationships between the various characters.

The story is told primarily in mid-1930s, however, the timeline toggles to 1901 to tell Dorothy’s story.  It is through Dorothy’s story that readers get much needed background on how she impacts June and Ruth’s relationship.    In the present, there is a rift between the sisters that stems from wanting what the other has. The sisters and their mother each want something they don’t have, and their yearnings put in jeopardy that which they do have as well as prevent them from appreciating what they’ve got. Have their secrets and desperate desires for something more or better lead to their current situations?  Is their current situation their karma?

All three characters are compelling even though they are not equally likable. It would be easy to feel compassion toward Ruth and her feelings of inadequacy, but her acrimony and envy make it hard to feel anything positive for her.  June is a bit more interesting and compelling, even though she is a bit of a doormat.  Their sibling rivalry is as juicy as that of the sisters in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres!  The secrets, lies and deception make for scintillating reading, but it is the heartbreak, love and forgiveness that makes The Sisters of Summit Avenue a beautiful family drama.



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