A combination coming-of-age story and mystery, following Matilda “Tilly” Bettencourt as she struggles against traditional expectations of women in the 1940s.
Smith follows young, beautiful Tilly Bettencourt from the moment she makes the life-changing decision to leave her family and join the war effort as a metal welder. Settled across the country, Tilly begins a lifelong friendship with her roommate, Doris, and their neighbor, Sylvia. Doris soon discovers that she is an heir to a piece of property close to Tilly’s hometown. After the war is over, the roommates reunite to start a candle-making business on Doris’ inherited property. Unknown to Tilly and Doris, however, is a secret past that binds the girls’ families and threatens their dreams. An act of arson that destroys the girls’ business finally forces the secret to light. Together, Tilly, Doris and Sylvia struggle to realize a life outside mainstream expectations for women in the ’40s. While the author touches on important sociopolitical issues of the times—racism, women’s rights and homophobia—history is incidental to the story. Smith works in broad strokes, skimming over the secrecy of gay life during the ’40s and the dramatic fallout of family betrayal. The author focuses instead on character-driven plot points: the assistance of a handsome carpenter in remodeling a cottage, the challenges of first-time entrepreneurship and the heartache that characters experience searching for romantic love. Smith draws on strong, clearly defined characters to deliver a mostly linear story about family betrayal and personal integrity.
Smith’s richly imagined characters breathe life into this look at female friendship in a time of limited social opportunity for women, as well as the enduring power of friendship to transcend almost any challenge.