Book Review: The Wartime Sisters by Lynda Cohen Loigman

 

Two estranged sisters, raised in Brooklyn and each burdened with her own shocking secret, are reunited at the Springfield Armory in the early days of WWII. While one sister lives in relative ease on the bucolic Armory campus as an officer’s wife, the other arrives as a war widow and takes a position in the Armory factories as a “soldier of production.” Resentment festers between the two, and secrets are shattered when a mysterious figure from the past reemerges in their lives.

The Wartime Sisters is the second novel by Lynda Cohen Loigman, whose debut novel The Two-Family House came out in 2016 (reviewed here). Both books focus on women’s lives during the 20th century, and both examine the intricate relationships between sisters, friends, and the people who come into their lives.

In The Wartime Sisters, Millie and Ruth couldn’t be more different. Ruth is three years older than Millie, and spends her entire childhood and adolescence hearing about her sister’s beauty and charm. Millie is the one their mother pins her hopes on, fantasizing about how the endless crowd of suitors will yield the perfect man to propose to Millie and make all her dreams come true. Meanwhile, Ruth grows up realizing that she’ll never be the pretty one, and resents Millie for always being the center of attention… never stopping to ask herself if Millie actually wants or enjoys the attention that comes her way.

The story flashes back and forth between the late 1930s, as the girls approach womanhood, and 1942/1943, as they settle into life at an army base in Massachusetts. We learn over time how they came to be there, and how they became so estranged from one another following their parents’ death.

Interwoven throughout their chapters on their earlier years is a nice evocation of Jewish life in Brooklyn at that time, showing the ways in which the family’s religion and culture define their world, their friends, and their approaches to life. Meanwhile, in Springfield, both Millie and Ruth form new bonds among the military wives and base workers, who represent a different but no less vibrant sort of community.

The Wartime Sisters shows the damage done to women’s souls through neglect and abuse, and also by the small and large cruelties carried out through resentment and gossip. In Springfield, we meet two additional women who fill large roles in the sisters’ new lives: Lillian, the base commander’s wife, with her own troubled childhood, is a pillar of strength and goodness amidst the turmoil; and Arietta, a motherly woman with a talent for both singing and cooking, takes Millie under her wing.

It’s sad to see the conflict between Ruth and Millie. As Ruth’s husband is sent overseas as a wartime scientist and Millie arrives, husband-less, impoverished, and burdened by secrets, it would seem that the two women finally have an opportunity to reclaim their relationship and establish a new closeness. Sadly, although Ruth offers a home to Millie, the warmth and ease that should come with it is missing. While the author lets us see why Ruth feels as she does and how her resentments built over time, it’s still hard to empathize. As far as we can see, Millie has never done anything wrong, has never set out to hurt Ruth or to undermine her. Ruth blames Millie for the incessant comparisons unkind neighbors have made all their lives, but it’s clearly just so unfair. Because of Ruth’s animosity, Millie is left to deal with their parents’ death on her own, and makes some calamitous decisions that bring about hardship and suffering. It’s hard to forgive Ruth for what she put Millie through.

In terms of the historical settings, I enjoyed learning about the Springfield Armory and the role women played in wartime readiness and production. The characters are colorful and memorable, and Arietta in particular is a delight to meet.

Overall, I found The Wartime Sisters to be moving and engaging. The story is crisp and nicely constructed, and the length means that it never feel draggy. I enjoyed the exploration of Ruth and Millie’s relationship, and despite being super annoyed with Ruth for much of the story, I thought the build-up of their history together and the explanation of all the baggage they carry with them was really effective and realistic.

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The details:

Title: The Wartime Sisters
Author: Lynda Cohen Loigman
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: January 22, 2019
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Take A Peek Book Review: Rules of Civility

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

On the last night of 1937, twenty-five-year-old Katey Kontent is in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar with her boardinghouse roommate stretching three dollars as far as it will go when Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a tempered smile, happens to sit at the neighboring table. This chance encounter and its startling consequences propel Katey on a yearlong journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool toward the upper echelons of New York society and the executive suites of Condé Nast–rarefied environs where she will have little to rely upon other than a bracing wit and her own brand of cool nerve.

Wooed in turn by a shy, principled multi-millionaire and an irrepressible Upper East Side ne’er-do-well, befriended by a single-minded widow who is a ahead of her time,and challenged by an imperious mentor, Katey experiences firsthand the poise secured by wealth and station and the failed aspirations that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her life, she begins to realize how our most promising choices inevitably lay the groundwork for our regrets.

My Thoughts:

Why is it that the best books are sometimes the hardest to write about? I truly loved Rules of Civility, but I’m having a hard time trying to figure out how to explain why.

Rules of Civility captures late 1930s New York brilliantly, with dialogue that snaps and a briskness to the tone that conveys the bustle and high spirits of people constantly on the go. Katey is a young woman with ambition, who starts with nothing and yet somehow ends up on top. Over the course of her year, she sees friends rise and fall, mingles in society with the upper crust wealthy elite, and slums it in low-rent jazz clubs and drinking holes. The characters occasionally feel like types we’ve seen before — the spoiled son of money, the striver with a secret, the party girl who always winds up with a free drink or two — but they still sparkle with individuality and practically zip through the ups and downs of the story.

Through it all, there are insights on secrets, ambition, and what truly makes for a happy life. The writing is lovely (although conversation can become hard to follow, as this author seems to have an aversion to quotation marks). Some of the plot twists seems to come out of nowhere, and I found myself repeatedly flipping backward through the book to find the hints and side comments that I’d missed. This is not at all a negative — there’s a lot of nuance hidden amidst the clever repartee and frantic energy of the action, and it makes for an especially engaging read overall.

Highly recommended — and once again, I need to give a shout-out to my awesome book club for picking Rules of Civility for our August read.

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The details:

Title: Rules of Civility
Author: Amor Towles
Publisher: Viking Adult
Publication date: July 26, 2011
Length: 335 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: PurchasedSave

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