A first novel from Australia about an artist and his wealthy wife living with their three daughters on the creative edge in hidebound 1930s Melbourne.
Narrator Lily is the 8-year-old only child of overprotective parents struggling their way through the Depression when she meets Eva Trentham and her two sisters, Bea and Heloise, at her new school. Entranced by Eva but also her glamorous mother, Helena, and painter father, Evan, who don’t mind flouting convention, Lily is soon spending as much time as she can at their estatelike home, which has belonged to Helena’s family for generations. Soon other young artists move in as the Trenthams experiment in creating a free-spirited bohemian utopia. Meanwhile Lily and Eva develop an intensely close friendship; author Bitto is particularly strong at portraying “the depth of intimacy in that first chaste trial marriage between girls.” Drawn to the atmosphere of “carefree detachment” in which Helena and Evan raise their children—Evan unselfconsciously naked much of the time, Helena paying erratic attention to basic needs like food on the table—Lily yearns to be part of the family, not just a friend or guest. But what seems Edenic to Lily becomes increasingly problematic for the Trentham daughters, particularly the youngest, Heloise, whose emotional struggles no one takes seriously until too late. The dangers of the Trentham's creative neglect come to fruition when the girls blossom into puberty in close proximity to attractive male artists in their 20s. From the first page, a middle-aged Lily lets the reader know “it all fell apart.” The novel is framed within Lily’s preparations to attend a 1985 museum retrospective of a now-revered Evan’s work, her visit to the now-elderly Trenthams, her first conversation with Eva since their relationship ruptured decades earlier, and her growing if conflicted desire to write a memoir about them all.
Bitto adapts a leisurely storytelling pace that matches the period as she explores with quiet passion both the cost of creative life on family and the definition of family itself.