Four sisters are McCullough’s avatars of women’s progress in Depression-era Australia.
In the fictional town of Corunda, New South Wales, two sets of twins are born to Anglican rector Thomas Latimer. Edda and Grace are the progeny of the reverend’s first wife, who dies in childbirth; Kitty and Heather, nicknamed Tufts, are born to Maude, his redoubtable second wife. Stunning Kitty is her mother's favorite, which poisons Maude's relationship with all four girls. Largely to escape Maude, the twins, upon reaching young womanhood, train as nurses at the local hospital. (Edda’s dream of medical school has been dashed, thanks to Maude.) This rambling, episodic tome follows the women into their 30s. Dreamy Grace, who’s obsessed with steam locomotives, marries fellow train enthusiast Bear. Edda begins a discreet affair with Jack, one of two heirs to the vast Burdum family fortune. Spinsterish Tufts has a similarly intense but platonic friendship with Liam, a pathologist. Charles Burdum, raised in England, returns to claim the lion’s share of his family's wealth. Determined to enter politics and marry Kitty (not necessarily in that order), he achieves both goals but can’t tame Kitty’s volatility or modulate her foul mouth. Edda surprises everyone by marrying Melbourne politico Sir Rawson—since he's gay, this is another deep but platonic friendship. The chief attractions here are the dissection of Australian society during the Great Depression and the detailed exposure of sex discrimination and feminist struggles, Australian style. This is clearly territory that McCullough knows well, but she doesn't manage to endow her story with much conflict or narrative drive.
An uneven but enlightening novel.